Why it matters:

The approval of this variance sets the stage for further residential development north of Fresno and more suburban sprawl supported by the city's core.

June 22, 2023 — Fresno County Planning Commission

Documented by Josef Sibala

What happened: In a 4-1 vote, Fresno County Planning Commissioners went against county staff recommendations and approved a variance application allowing developer Ben Ewell, father of Fresno County Planning Commissioner Austin Ewell, to split one approximately 20-acre parcel into four smaller parcels in an area zoned for 20-acre lot minimums and exclusively agricultural use.

Commissioner Austin Ewell was not present for the meeting when Commissioners Ken Abrahamian, John Arabian, Blake Zante and Kuldip Chatha voted to approve the variance, while Commissioner Esther Carver voted against.

The site is located at 12911 Auberry Road, east of Friant Road, and is surrounded by 20-acre parcels with little development. Ben Ewell represented the property owner, who he referred to as the Hayashi family, and said there have been at least 15 similar variance applications over the years, of which 13 have been approved by the Planning Commission or Fresno County Board of Supervisors.

He said the parcel is not suitable for farming, largely due to water requirements included in the general plan, which he said would require the owners to have a minimum 1-acre foot of water per acre of land in order to farm.

“The makeup of this area and others that were zoned for ag, just don’t fit with the current state of affairs out there,” Ben Ewell said. “I don’t think this property could ever comply with agricultural land requirements.”

Fresno County Planner Elliot Racusin said that the variance allows for four by-right homes and possible secondary residences, which is contrary to the general plan zoning for exclusively agricultural use. Racusin said that the property could be alternatively rezoned, which would be a lengthier process decided by the Board of Supervisors.

A slide from the staff’s presentation states that granting the variance for Ben Ewell would constitute a special privilege inconsistent with zoning requirements for the area in the AE-20 zone.

And also: Commissioner Austin Ewell was absent from this meeting and previously had to petition the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in order to retain his seat, due to excessive absences.

As of April 25, Austin Ewell had missed four of the five meetings that had occurred. Since then, he also missed the May 18 and June 22 meetings — meaning he has missed six of the nine meetings that have occurred this year. The meetings he did attend were: Jan. 12, April 27, and June 8.

He is the president of the Ewell Group, a land development firm with real estate interests in Fresno and Madera counties consisting of 3,500 acres, according to its website. He formerly worked in the Trump administration as the deputy assistant secretary for water and science in the Department of Interior.

Austin Ewell was appointed to the commission on Jan. 26, 2021, for a four-year term ending Jan. 6, 2025.

Up next: The Fresno County Planning Commission will meet again on July 20.

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The Fresno Documenters are a group of local residents who are trained and paid to attend and take notes at local public meetings where officials decide how to spend public money and make important decisions...