What's at stake?
In a move that the Dyer Administration says is needed to address the region's housing crisis, the city is moving forward with plans to open up 6,700 acres of farmland for 45,000 new homes.
But the city has been silent on how much the development will cost taxpayers, nor on how it will help the city address its climate goals.
Seventy years ago, the city of Fresno swallowed up mile after mile of grape and fig orchards in a march north to plant homes on the banks of the San Joaquin River. Now, Fresno wants to grow east with a plan that could change the shape of the city forever.
This fall, Mayor Jerry Dyer’s administration wants the Fresno City Council’s approval to transform nearly 9,000 acres southeast of Fresno into a new Clovis on Fancher Creek.
The project up for the city council’s vote will be one of the biggest suburban sprawl projects in Fresno’s history. The Dyer administration’s plan includes 45,000 homes and up to 150,000 people on a patchwork stretch of farmland, rural homesteads, two-lane country roads, and stop signs.
Known as the Southeast Development Area (SEDA), the transformed community would rival the size of Clovis – 16 times the size of the Copper River project in northeast Fresno and seven times as large as Riverstone and Tesoro Viejo, the major new communities across the San Joaquin River in Madera.
“This is just another tool in our toolbox to expand the availability of housing across our entire city,” said city Planning Director Jennifer Clark.
Fresno’s general plan follows a two-to-one ratio of sprawl to infill. For every home built in the core of Fresno for the next 20 years, two homes get built at the edge of sprawl.
SEDA is “in line with those” housing targets, Clark said.
But as the Dyer administration looks to SEDA as a bulwark for the city’s unprecedented housing crisis, the city doesn’t know how much of the 45,000 homes will be affordable housing.
It’s a key detail that will be worked out after the city council potentially approves the project this fall, Clark said.
“We’re laying the groundwork for the market to be able to develop,” Clark said.
Also not included yet in the city’s plan for SEDA: How to pay for its infrastructure cost. That will be ironed out until after the council approves the massive project.
“There will be some follow-up things that will need to occur, including the impact fees and the financing plan for the infrastructure,” Clark said.
The city’s approach with SEDA, which the public can comment on until Monday, has attracted critics.
Schools in Fresno, Sanger face big financial hurdles
Eduardo Martinez, Sanger Unified’s deputy superintendent, is a man with a billion-dollar headache.
SEDA will double the size of Sanger Unified, Martinez said, requiring 16 new schools in his district. The cost, Martinez estimates, is $1 billion.
But he doesn’t know how Sanger Unified will find the money.
“There are no local dollars for any other project,” Martinez told Fresnoland.“It’s all dedicated.”
Already, the costs of Sanger West, the first of the 16 new schools SEDA needs, has exhausted Sanger Unified’s local revenue sources, Martinez said.
The state school bonds that Clovis Unified relied on 40 years ago to build its empire have dried up, he added. And he’s hesitant to turn to residents for another school bond.
“For bond measures for Sanger Unified,” he said, “I’m almost bond-exhausted physically from doing those.”
Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson is also critical of the city’s approach to SEDA.
“If you expand the city massively to the southeast, it’s going to leave behind gaping holes in the current existing infrastructure, which is already stretched to capacity,” Nelson told Fresnoland. “And if you do that with no care or mitigation for what you’re leaving behind, that’s not a responsible way to grow the city.”
The first school district in the path of SEDA’s growth, Clovis Unified, is already facing growing pains. The school district bought land for the new growth area in 2008, and the district’s first intermediate and high school for SEDA, which will open up in Fall 2025, faces huge sewer and water concerns.
At the southern edge of SEDA, the costs and lack of mitigation of the plan being forwarded by the Dyer administration are being criticized by Sanger Unified officials, who said the school district faces huge infrastructure costs that it doesn’t know how to pay for.
The city of Fresno needs to play a bigger role in paying for SEDA’s growth, said Sanger Unified spokesman Cary Catalano.
“At the same time that the city wants all these homes, they need to be a part of the solution and try to find permanent state financing to fund the construction of these facilities and not put 100% of the burden on the local taxpayers,” said Catalano.
Killed in last recession, SEDA comes alive again with state help
For decades, Fresno leaders have eyed growing to the southeast.
In 2004, a city-county tax-sharing agreement outlined a master plan for the SEDA area that needed to be implemented before city hall could open it up to patchwork development.
Former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry helped hire Peter Calthorpe, a world-famous urban planner, to develop SEDA’s ‘new urbanist’ plan: a nearly self-contained, walkable community on the city’s fringe.
But the Great Recession of 2008 and concerns over infrastructure costs by former city council members, including former Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, nearly killed the entire project.
In 2020, the state’s Housing and Community Development Department gave the sprawling project a second life.
The state gave the city of Fresno a $625,000 grant to finish SEDA’s environmental documents under the premise that opening the rural area up for development would help the city address its housing crisis.
“Finishing the (environmental review) for this would then potentially open up the ability to start developing in this area,” Clark said.
As the plan moves forward for approval this fall, the infrastructure cost is unclear, said Clark. The city has a fiscal analysis tool, but it has not used it yet, according to city officials. Costs that are unknown include new sewer, road, and water infrastructure that need to be built.
The upcoming decision to develop the far-flung project comes mere months after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $250 million state investment to revitalize downtown Fresno.
In Sanger, the door has closed on building a new Clovis empire
In Fresno, current developer fees are so low, said school-building guru Terry Bradley, “it’s nowhere near enough to even think about building a school.”
Bradley is arguably the state’s leading mastermind in building new schools. He was hired by Floyd “Doc” Buchanan in 1976 to build out Clovis Unified. By the end of his career at CUSD, Bradley built 36 new schools that are consistently ranked as some of the best tuition-free facilities in the state.
But even as Sanger looks at a boom to rival past Clovis ones, developer fees can’t pay for new schools, Bradley said. In Fresno, it never has.
Back in the heyday of Clovis Unified’s suburban expansion, Bradley told Fresnoland, state funding fully paid for all of Buchanan and many other Clovis Unified schools to be built.
“In the good old days, you got the money the day after your project got approved,” Bradley said. “A lot of state money in the 80s and 90s: that helped Clovis Unified.”
The generous state support freed up Clovis Unified’s local bond dollars to build the district’s legendary sports facilities and stadiums, Bradley said.
“But that’s not the case anymore,” Bradley said. “The emphasis on state bonds has moved from building new schools to renovating existing schools.”
For SEDA, higher developer fees needed
Without state support to build new schools, Bradley said, it’s possible for developer fees to cover the costs.
But in Fresno, that would require an increase in these fees from the area’s current $4.75/square foot.
“To be totally transparent, this all comes down to politics and relationships to developer fees,” Bradley said.
“You’ve got to have a city that won’t allow development to happen until a plan is in place as to how you’re going to fund schools to house those kids. And you got to have a cooperative developer,” he said.
But so far, the city of Fresno has failed to be a partner on how to make room for SEDA’s growth, said Catalano, the Sanger schools spokesperson.
“The city is not worried about how we find that billion dollars,” said Catalano.
Bradley recalled the days when he levied the first developer fee in Fresno before Operation Rezone to illustrate that raising taxes on new homes has always been an uphill battle for the city.
“In the 80s and early 1990s, we had no cooperation from the cities at all,” he said. “I can remember going to a city of Fresno Council meeting: they were really upset that Clovis Unified was actually implementing a Level 1 fee – $1.50/square foot.”
Developers are more responsible today than in the past, Bradley said. “But at the same time, they need to play a more important role in this.”
The head of the Fresno Madera Building Industry Association, however, disagrees.
“Impact fees and regulatory fees are now more than $40,000 per home or apartment, depending on where it is located. As these fees go up, it prices the average income buyer out of the market,” said Mike Prandini, the local BIA president, in an email to Fresnoland.
State can help pay for Fresno’s growth too, officials say
The city of Fresno met with Sanger Unified officials in January 2022, said Fresno spokesman Brandon Johansen. “[N]o mention was made about developer fees,” he said.
Along with higher developer fees, Catalano said the city needs to join in on lobbying the state legislature to pay for the costs of Sanger’s new schools.
A proposed 2024 state school bond, AB 247, could help pay for future Sanger facilities, Bradley said, due to the district’s percentage of underprivileged kids.
“There’s language in the current legislation (the draft 2024 bond) that would allow a district like Sanger Unified not to fund 50% for a new school,” Bradley said.
Fresno’s climate change approach is ‘just bizarre’
The megadevelopment will increase the city’s greenhouse gas footprint by 25% – and wipe away a decade-and-a-half of climate change progress. The city’s climate change goals may be unreachable after it is built.
SEDA “is not consistent” with the city’s climate change plan, the city said in its environmental review.
But the city is providing no mitigation for this increase.
“No feasible mitigation [is] available,” the city said.
Air pollution emissions will also increase 600% in southeast Fresno, according to the document, in some of the most polluted neighborhoods in California.
The city of Fresno did not analyze the public health impacts of this pollution on local residents in its environmental review.
The city is waiting for a later time — after SEDA is approved — to deal with the project’s air pollution and climate change impacts, said city spokesman Johansen.
“As individual projects are filed within the Southeast Development Area, they will be evaluated under CEQA to determine project impacts and mitigation measures,” he said in an email.
The city’s plan shocked even one of the country’s most seasoned environmental lawyers, John Buse, the legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
He said he hadn’t seen a public agency move on with a project that was so completely at odds with its environmental goals.
“This is blatantly against their greenhouse gas plan,” Buse said. “Where they’ve come up with a plan (SEDA) and then acknowledge massive inconsistencies with other plans: I haven’t seen that very often or if at all. This is unusual.”
According to Fresno’s 2021 climate change plan, the city will reduce its CO2 emissions by 559,000 tons a year by 2035. But SEDA, which was not factored into the city’s climate change plan, will increase the city’s emissions by 510,000 tons a year.
The city is leaning on “anticipated developments” from state and federal regulators to make up for the city’s lost progress, according to the city’s environmental review.
Such anticipations include “continued improvements” in California’s energy sector, and “deployment of improved vehicle efficiency,” which the review said “will serve to reduce the project’s emissions level.”
The city’s decision to move forward with SEDA, despite its massive, unmitigated greenhouse gas impacts, is based on “overriding considerations,” said Buse.
It’s when the city decides that the project’s benefits outweigh its impacts.
But under state law, the city can only make that conclusion if it analyzes all feasible mitigation measures. The city doesn’t appear to have done that, Buse said.
Instead, “they are simply saying because we can’t completely eliminate or reduce the impact to less than significant levels, we can just stop there. But that’s not my read of the state of the law right now.”
“They do need to do more.”
For example, Buse said, the city could install new HVAC systems in low-income neighborhoods and use carbon offsets.
But for SEDA, the city of Fresno is deploying none of these.
“It’s just bizarre that they’ve thrown up their hands and say that they can’t do anything more,” Buse said.
Dyer, homebuilders say SEDA will address affordable housing crisis
At the end of the day, however, the city’s “substantial shortage” of homes, Clark said, is driving the reemergence of SEDA as an option. Despite building at the edge of the city, she said that SEDA’s homes will have a new look.
“We believe that the type of product that will be built in SEDA is very different than what we’ve seen in other growth areas,” she said. “The focus of the southeast development area specific plan has always been on a more compact walkable model.”
Even as planners estimate a surplus of thousands of acres of vacant land within city limits, developers say SEDA is needed to keep homes affordable.
Rural farmland is simply easier to build on than inner-city fields, said Prandini, with the Fresno-Madera Building Industry Association.
“The area you call infill consists of smaller parcels and as such are more expensive to develop. In addition it may be unavailable for sale or at a price that would not make economic sense to develop,” he said.
Clark said the EIR will be before the city council for adoption this fall.
Public comments can be submitted by Monday, Aug. 28, here.
Fresnoland editor Danielle Bergstrom contributed to this story.