By Radley Reep
Fresno County’s long-range land-use planning is in shambles, and local officials and county residents are sparring over how to deal with the situation.
Rather than cooperating to set things right, government officials and county residents are grappling with each other over how best to gain control of the situation. While the County government (County) seems to be focusing primarily on damage control and an easy way forward, county residents are seeking a comprehensive, long-term solution.
Control of Process
The current 2000–2020 General Plan (plan) contains a myriad of development standards and planning tasks embodied in 56 broad goals, 673 specific policies and 176 implementation programs, which together explicate the process by which the County will protect natural resources and improve the living conditions of all county residents.
The plan is in serious trouble, for although the County has generally honored the plan’s development standards, it has failed to execute tasks designed to assure plan implementation. This past spring, the League of Women Voters of Fresno (LWV) prepared a General Plan progress report, which showed that as of 2017, the County was unable to demonstrate successful execution of two-thirds of the plan’s implementation programs.
Had the plan been implemented as required, as of today, the County would have prepared 18 annual progress reports, completed three comprehensive five-year plan reviews (2005, 2010 and 2015) and initiated a process to “update” the plan for the next two decades (2020–2040). Instead, the county prepared only six progress reports, completed none of the five-year reviews and has yet to formally initiate a process to update the plan.
County officials have demonstrated an extraordinary lack of interest in the General Plan. During the past two years, County officials have not once elected to discuss publicly any particular plan goal, policy or program. The situation is analogous to a corporation operating under a business plan, the particulars of which are seldom if ever reviewed by its board of directors.
Over the past 14 years (2005–2019), County planners have proposed six draft revisions of the General Plan Policy Document. None were adopted.
County residents have found it difficult to remain effectively engaged over so long a period of time. In October 2017, the LWV formally petitioned the Board of Supervisors to conduct a public hearing to clarify whether the County was still conducting the five-year review begun in 2005 or whether the process had morphed into a full update of the plan.
The County chose not to honor that request but did respond with this written statement: “While the term ‘update’ appears in two statutes applicable to General Plans, this term is not defined…Given that the term has no legally defined meaning, the County has not chosen to attach that term to its current review of the General Plan.”
A year later, in December 2018, a similar request was collectively made by 13 nonprofit organizations. The Board chose not to honor the request as well.
Control of Information
With respect to the General Plan, prior to 2015, meetings between County staff and the LWV were cordial and relatively informative, but in subsequent years as the LWV and other organizations pressed for greater specificity, the County became less willing to share information.
Beginning in the summer of 2016 and continuing through all of 2017, the County took down from its Web site all information regarding the review and revision of the plan, leaving the public without any information at all. Then, unexpectedly, in early 2018, information was restored. The County announced it had created a new Web page specifically “dedicated” to information related to the review and revision of the plan.
At that same time, the County released for public review a sixth draft revision of the plan, which, by the LWV’s estimate, would significantly alter or delete more than half of the plan’s programs and nearly a fifth of the plan’s policies. Notwithstanding complaints from county residents, the County provided no explanation for any of the proposed changes, which was in marked contrast to the County’s earlier practice to identify for the Board and the public the source and disposition all recommended changes.
Control of Public Participation
In the fall of 2018, under pressure from county residents, the County held a series of five community meetings to explain the County’s process for reviewing and revising the plan. Nonprofit organizations informed the County that they wished to help publicize the meetings, but the County did not work to make that happen.
The first meeting, held on Nov. 14, was acrimonious, partly because meeting notices were late in reaching people. Adding to the tension, county residents asked pointed questions that County planners seemed reluctant to answer fully. As a result, at a subsequent meeting held on Nov. 27, County planners announced that they would not take questions from the public.
That same year, the County added a time schedule to its Web page indicating when a seventh draft of the General Plan Policy Document would be available for public review. However, this past spring, the schedule was inexplicably removed. Where the County had previously given a time frame for the release of draft documents, there was now a statement reading “Release date to be determined.”
The LWV estimates that draft documents released for public review will total 2,000–3,000 pages. By law, the County need only provide the public 45 days to digest the information and provide written comments. That being the case, this past April, an LWV member wrote to County staff asking whether the County could provide advance notice of the release date so that residents could be prepared to begin the arduous task of reviewing documents as soon as they were available.
The County replied: “Consistent with prior distribution of materials for public review, the County will provide an extended review period beyond the minimum 45-day review period….As a result, advance notification is not necessary.”
To the contrary, the County has not been consistent in its distribution of materials for public review. For this reason, the public cannot know how long the review period will be or when it will begin.
Our nation was founded on principles of democracy, among them, popular sovereignty and the rule of law. Popular sovereignty means that the powers of government are based on the consent of the governed. The rule of law means, quite simply, that no one is above the law and that the law applies to everyone equally.
Two decades ago, the people of this county established a set of goals, policies and programs to govern the County through the year 2020. According to the California Supreme Court, that General Plan is our “constitution for all future development.”
Today, county residents are questioning why the General Plan has not been fully implemented and why their concerns are being rebuffed. They understand full well the importance of robust public participation in long-range land-use planning, as evidenced by their persistent calls for clarity with respect to the County’s process for reviewing and revising the plan.
A gulf has formed between county residents and their government—the County not wanting to give in to the public’s calls for complete and accurate information and the public not wanting to be shoved aside.
Radley Reep is a retired teacher with the Fresno Unified School District. For the past 10 years, he’s been engaged in research for the League of Women Voters of Fresno in the area of land-use planning focusing primarily on the implementation of the Fresno County General Plan. Contact him at email@example.com.