Photo by Robert Lara via Flickr Creative Commons

Friant Ranch a Disaster in the Making for Lost Lake Park and Fresno County

Robert Merrill

Virtually unknown to the citizens of Fresno County is the impending decision facing the Fresno County Board of Supervisors on February 1. The Board is being asked to approve a zoning change that will create a huge suburban and commercial expansion to the town of Friant. If approved, the population of that rural town would increase from approximately 519 to 6,000. Approval of this development would ultimately result in many harmful effects to Fresno and the Central Valley in terms of traffic congestion, air quality, water supply and agriculture, to name a few.

Approval by the supervisors would continue the legacy of bad land-use decisions by past Board members, who ignored the cumulative effects that later became detrimental to the health and taxpayers of Fresno County. Approval by the supervisors would violate Fresno County’s General Plan and could create further budgetary stress for our citizenry in the form of reductions in services and/or tax increases. Approval of Friant Ranch would severely affect Lost Lake Park and the San Joaquin River Parkway, while creating unnecessary conflicts should the park need to be expanded in the future.

The City of Fresno’s response (December 7, 2010) regarding the Friant Ranch Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to the Board of Supervisors points out the numerous violations of the State of California Environmental Quality Act, as well as the county’s violations of its own General Plan. A reading of the city’s letter of response is amazing in the number of violations listed and their seriousness. This document alone ought to be enough to cause the Board to reject the Friant Ranch proposal. However, the observed demeanor of some supervisors at the December 7 hearing, and their lack of questions regarding issues raised by opponents of Friant Ranch, is truly troubling.

On January 15, “The facts about Friant Ranch” opinion piece by Dennis Bacopulos in the Fresno Bee was nothing more than an attempt to gather sympathy for the “poor” landowners and a real estate development corporation’s interests. The author’s statement that Friant Ranch does not represent leapfrog development is outrageous in that it clearly is separated by miles from the infrastructure of Fresno and Clovis. Yet many of its proposed residents would commute to Fresno and Clovis for employment, thus adding traffic congestion and air pollution to an already strained roadway system and unhealthy Valley air.

His comment about light rail one day connecting Friant to Fresno is, in my opinion, so far in the future as to be ludicrous or laughable, and who would pay for it? Consider a possible name for that light rail: Friant Area Rapid Transit (FART) and perhaps it could be featured along with the air terminal (FAT) for an episode on The Daily Show. The author’s statement regarding the sewage treatment plant as not being visible from Lost Lake Park suggests some magical thinking, so one does not see it upon entering the park, or driving along Friant Road.

Finally, Bacopulos’ statement that Fresno County has reviewed the effects of Friant Ranch on the environment and the citizens of Fresno County suggests either he has avoided reading the City of Fresno’s December 7 response to the Friant Ranch EIR or he wants the public to avoid hearing the city’s finding of the many factual errors in that report.

The City of Fresno deserves praise for its 17-page response to the inadequate, incomplete and inaccurate Friant Ranch EIR. If the city’s letter was read by the voters of Fresno County, they would likely respond with an overwhelming “no,” but few of those citizens are aware of that letter and its content. Therefore, in my opinion, a majority of the Board will vote for development because they know not what they do. Such is the nature of these individuals, that one day they vote to adopt a good General Plan and the next day they vote to violate that same General Plan. Yet Fresno’s citizens keep electing such individuals, because the monied interests finance their campaigns.

Fresno County’s General Plan calls for restricting growth to near existing urban boundaries, yet the county supervisors are poised to approve a leapfrog development far beyond the Fresno-Clovis sphere of influence. Yet the Friant Ranch proposal is before the county at a time of a significant local foreclosure crisis, and a recently released UCLA economic study stated that the Central Valley’s economy is significantly weighed down by massive overbuilding. Furthermore, Celia Chen, a housing economist with Moody’s Economy.com, predicted that it might be 2030 before housing recovery recovers fully in the Central Valley.

In light of these analyses, the county would be wise to consider economic data and analyses before approving development plans, so that prior developments do not lie vacant as more are approved. Examination of existing vacancies in commercial and residential developments and adherence to the General Plan would allow the county to develop a sound demographic, economic and environmental base that is sustainable and could help maintain property values.

Another part of the county’s General Plan calls for protecting our economic base in agriculture. Yet some supervisors continue to approve rezoning of agricultural land for urban development. These actions take water away from agriculture to support urban expansion and leapfrog development.

How many of our supervisors understand that Friant Ranch’s annual purchase of 2,000 acre feet of water from the Lower Tule River Irrigation District (LTRID) will mean that in drought years, LTRID will pump groundwater, if necessary, to supply its farmers? When will those supervisors, especially those whose districts contain many farming interests, finally realize that loss of water and land to urban expansion compromises the nation’s ability to be self-sufficient with regard to its food supply? Are we as citizens interested in more and more of our food supply coming from overseas?

Fresno County desperately needs to assess the impact of population growth on the sustainability of the water supply for the existing population of water users in Fresno County. This is especially important as you cannot have infinite growth on a finite resource. Once such surface and groundwater resources are analyzed and integrated with agricultural and urban demands, Fresno County could accurately address how new development including population growth will affect the existing water resource.

The San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural interests already complain mightily about the water crisis, and every time agricultural-destined water is sold to urban development that situation is made worse. The greatest threat to San Joaquin Valley agriculture is not environmental water needs, but urban expansion. This is something the supervisors representing Fresno County’s rural and farming areas ought to consider far more seriously. Every time you invite more people to settle in Fresno County, you further exacerbate the water crisis, which will only worsen as population increases and climate change continues. Continued unlimited growth is not possible on our finite resources, especially water.

Ironically, on the same day, December 7, the Board heard the Friant Ranch proposal, it passed a resolution honoring retiring Assemblyman Juan Arambula, along with other officials from Fresno. I wonder if these supervisors understood, or were even aware of, Arambula’s effort to pass groundwater regulations designed to protect agriculture from groundwater overdraft by requiring groundwater monitoring.

Arambula’s bill would have begun to protect water destined for agriculture from being sold to urban uses, especially outside the Central Valley. Arambula’s AB 2776 would have been an excellent start on making water transfers more transparent and allowed for data gathering to better document what is happening to the Central Valley’s water resources. But, because water is treated differently from other natural resources, such as oil and gas, legislators were afraid to even begin requiring appropriate data to be gathered to confirm how farm to city water transfers further aggravate the growing water crisis in California.

Beyond ignoring the Valley’s water crisis, apparently the Friant Ranch developers do not consider grazing land to be agricultural land and propose no mitigating measures to replace the land being removed from agriculture. Nor did their EIR investigate the soil quality and what other agricultural crops might be grown thereon. All one needs to do is look across the San Joaquin River and see vineyards expanding on similar soils.

With several previously approved rural subdivisions in the vicinity of Friant, lying largely vacant, why approve another leapfrog development. Fresno County should create land-use plans together with Madera County so that both sides of the county line develop in a compatible style, especially along the San Joaquin River corridor.

Madera County has approved several massive and unsustainable developments just across the San Joaquin River. There is no mitigation for the financial impact of those developments on Fresno County’s road infrastructure. Why ask Fresno County to further overload its road roads and absorb further traffic congestion? We already have a severe air quality problem, and approval of the Friant Ranch development would only worsen the situation.

The Friant Ranch population at build-out would have major effects on the roads and traffic congestion, as many of those residents would work in Fresno or Clovis. Obviously, this traffic would have a negative impact of significance on Fresno’s air quality, thereby further affecting the health costs to residents of our air basin. Are these issues beyond the comprehension of some supervisors or are their votes more influenced by expanding the financial interests of their major campaign contributors?

In addition to the air quality issues surrounding Friant Ranch is current state policy regarding greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, which need to be addressed. In fact, recent comments by our new governor when he was attorney general suggest that the state might pull highway funds from those local agencies that persist in making land-use (zoning) decisions that violate these laws and General Plans.

Returning for a moment to the Sewage Treatment Plant issue, the county needs to require that sewage treatment plant final design and location be stipulated as part of the zoning change approval along with the acceptance of the EIR, rather than later as a conditional-use permit. Such action would prevent the county from being held hostage by the developer at a later date with regard to plant design as the development begins to build out. To evaluate the potential problems of the Sewage Treatment Plant, one needs to know its final design and location.

It is time for Fresno to honor its General Plan and draw up a water resource plan that emphasizes sustainability. Fresno County must consider the existing constraints on its water supply and air quality if it wants to promote a healthy and economically viable future for its current residents. Continued unconstrained population growth will not solve Fresno’s economic and environmental problems. Land, water and breathable air are finite resources. It’s time Fresno County’s elected officials paid attention to land-use and resource knowledge acquired by the nation’s scientists, engineers and educators. Continued denial of the facts regarding the limits of the earth is no longer appropriate.

If after reading this personal opinion piece, you are concerned about the Friant Ranch and its impact on Lost Lake Park, the San Joaquin River, its violation of Fresno County’s General Plan, etc., please attend the Board of Supervisors meeting on February 1 at 2 p.m. on the third floor of the County Hall of Records building.

If you desire to read the City of Fresno’s excellent response regarding the many items ignored or incompletely addressed in the EIR, phone the Fresno County Board of Supervisors at 559-600-3529 or 800-742-1011, or your supervisor. Each supervisor has a copy of that document, and you can simply phone your supervisor, asking for a copy. Unfortunately, accessing the document via the county’s Web site is nearly impossible.

If you do attend the Board’s February 1 hearing, please bring a short statement to read to the Board and have it entered into the official record. Remember only you can help save Lost Lake Park and the San Joaquin River.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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