Implementation of the Fresno County General Plan: Death by Design

Implementation of the Fresno County General Plan: Death by Design
Image by Paul Frankenstein via Flickr Creative Commons

By Radley Reep

A real eye-opener is a rarely viewed film entitled Death by Design. This film describes the mechanism by which our bodies replace cells at a rate of about 5,000,000 cells per second—give or take a few. This 1995 science documentary focuses on how cells die. According to the film, cells die by design—the method for execution being cellular abandonment. Take a perfectly healthy cell, power down communication to that cell, and it will quite neatly self-destruct. This mode of self-destruction applies equally well to collections of cells—to organisms such as us. Totally alienate a person, discontinue all communication with that person, and he or she will likely fall ill and die.

This same process holds true for non-living things—for ideas and plans. Take a perfectly healthy plan and fail to implement it, to review it or to revise it as necessary, and eventually it will wither away and perish. This is exactly what has happened to the Fresno County General Plan (henceforth “the Plan”). For the past decade, the Board of Supervisors has consistently neglected the Plan. As a result, the Plan is in big trouble, unquestionably so. In fact, the Plan is so badly compromised that it’s now on life support.

The Importance of a Good Plan

The State Legislature declared in 1976 that “decisions involving the future growth of the state, most of which are made and will continue to be made at the local level, should be guided by an effective planning process, including the local general plan, and should proceed within the framework of officially approved statewide goals and policies.”

Because a general plan affects the lives of current and future generations, state law requires that the plan take a long-term perspective. Most jurisdictions select 15 to 20 years as the horizon for a general plan, but that horizon does not mark an end point; rather, it provides a context in which to make shorter-term decisions. The Fresno County General Plan was last updated in 2000, and the expectation is that it will be comprehensively updated again around 2020.

Our General Plan is a blueprint or a constitution for land use and development. It expresses our community’s social goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of land uses, both public and private. It informs citizens, developers and decision makers of the ground rules that guide development. It strives to make the best use of natural resources and to protect the health and well-being of county residents.

Plan Abandonment

There’s good reason for annual self-assessments. Our Plan contains language requiring the county to annually assess how well the Plan is being implemented and then to report the same to the Office of Planning and Research and to the Department of Housing and Community Development by April 1 of each year.

Unfortunately, sometime about 2003, this internal mechanism was effectively switched off by the Board of Supervisors. Their modus operandi: abandonment. For the past decade, the county has not performed an annual review of the Plan, a clear violation of local and state law.

The Plan also requires the county to review and revise the Plan every five years. That being the case, there should have been a revision in 2005 and one in 2010, but those revisions never happened. The county initiated its first five-year review and revision of the Plan in 2006. That process has been in the works for the past seven years and is yet to be completed.

Forgoing mandated annual assessments and delaying periodic revisions have crippled the Plan in numerous ways. The truth is that by doing very little the Board of Supervisors has actually done a lot of harm. Plan implementation is drastically off course.

Plan Structure

Each of California’s 58 counties has a unique general plan that acts as a master plan for its physical development. Fresno County’s Plan has three components: 1) a Background Report, 2) a Policy Document and 3) a collection of 41 regional, community and specific plans. These three components function as a whole. By law, there can be no contradictions among them—no internal inconsistencies. And all land-use entitlements granted by the county must be in harmony with the entire Plan.

Background Report

Compiled in the late 1990s, the 778-page Background Report describes the county’s environmental setting. It inventories and analyzes conditions and trends within the county, discusses all the significant issues addressed by the Plan and provides the formal supporting documentation for Plan policy. The Report is the foundation upon which county land-use policy is built.

Policy Document

The Policy Document is the portion of the Plan best understood by most people. It contains the following seven elements:

  • Economic Development Element
  • Agriculture and Land-Use Element
  • Transportation and Circulation Element
  • Public Facilities and Services Element
  • Open Space and Conservation Element
  • Health and Safety Element
  • Housing Element

Each of these seven elements contains a set of policies and a set of implementation programs designed to make sure policies are carried out. The Policy Document contains 673 policies and 176 implementation programs.

The word shall appears in 93% of the policies and in 100% of the implementation programs. The inclusion of the word shall is highly significant, for shall is defined in the Plan as an “unequivocal directive.” For example, the word has been written into Land-Use Program LU-H.E, which declares that the county “shall conduct a major review of the General Plan…every five years and revise it as deemed necessary [italics added].”

Collection of Regional, Community and Specific Plans

The General Plan contains 41 ancillary plans that describe land use in greater detail. There are four regional plans, including the Sierra North Regional Plan and the Kings River Regional Plan. There are 31 community plans: eight for different sections of the Fresno-Clovis metropolitan area, one each for the other 13 cities in the county and one each for 10 of the largest unincorporated communities. There are also six specific plans. Examples include the Millerton (New Town) Specific Plan from 1984 and the Friant Ranch Specific Plan from 2011. (Note: The 15 cities within the county also have their own general plans.)

2000 Environmental Work

When the General Plan was last updated in 2000, the Board of Supervisors also adopted an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The two documents are inextricably linked. The Background Report is incorporated fully into the EIR as the setting or baseline information for the environmental assessment of the Plan, and many of the policies from the Policy Document are incorporated into the EIR as mitigation measures to lessen the adverse impacts of Plan adoption. In other words, the Plan and the EIR share some of the same text. Revising one can alter the other.

This interconnection has made the Plan and the EIR inseparable and undividable. In fact, the relationship is so tight that the county has declared the Plan to be environmentally self-mitigating. When Plan implementation is successful, the environment is protected; when Plan implementation is compromised, so is the environment.

Proposed Revision

A final Board decision on the revision of the Plan could come as early as February 2014. Because the Housing Element is the only element not being reviewed at this time, the number of policies under review is 604 and the number of implementation programs is 121.

The county is labeling the proposed revision “minor.” Not all agree. In February 2013, the League of Women Voters of Fresno (LWV) published a two-volume study guide on the proposed revision. The study guide is available on the LWV’s Web site ( An overview of the proposed revision is found on pages 1–12 of Volume I. Below are selected statements from that first volume.

Of the 604 policies…, 84 (14%) are significantly modified and 18 (3%) are deleted. There are 36 new policies.

By far the greatest percentage of significant change (in red) is proposed for policies in the Economic Development Element (31 of 50 policies or 62%).

The Agriculture and Land Use Element has the second highest percentage of proposed significant change (30 of 160 policies or 19%) as well as the greatest percentage of policy deletions—13 of 160 policies or 8%.

There is much greater change proposed for implementation programs than for policies. Of the 121 implementation programs…, 34 (28%) are proposed for significant modification (in red) and 28 (23%) are proposed for deletion. The percent of implementation programs proposed for significant change is double the percent proposed for policies, and the deletion rate for implementation programs is 8 times the rate for policies.

There are 13 new programs. Each new program will require staff time, including the yet-to-be-explained program requiring the preparation and execution of a Climate Action Plan.

Public Concern

The public has every right to be concerned—not only with the county’s failure to annually review Plan implementation but also with the county’s inept handling of the proposed revision. Below are four areas of concern.

1. Incomplete Review

The county has chosen not to review and revise the Background Report—despite the Plan directive that it be revised concurrently with the Policy Document:

Policy LU-H.14

The County shall conduct a major review of the General Plan, including the General Plan Policy Document and Background Report, every five years and revise it as deemed necessary [italics added].

The policy direction is unequivocal. The review and revision of the Background Report provides needed information—an update of conditions within the county and a fresh discussion of the issues addressed in the Plan. Because the Background Report is the foundation on which the Policy Document is built, the Plan mandates that the documents be revised concurrently.

A secondary concern is the Board decision not to timely update the Housing Element. According to state law, the Housing Element must be comprehensively updated about every five years. Fresno County last updated its Housing Element in 2003, which means that the Housing Element has been out of date since 2008. The county should have included the Housing Element in the current revision, if for no other reason than to assure consistency among all seven elements.

2. No Status Report on Implementation of the Current Plan

Prior to the final public hearing on the proposed revision, staff should provide the Board of Supervisors with a status report on the progress made to date in implementing the Plan. All indications are, however, that staff will not do that. How then will it be possible for the Board of Supervisors to intelligently revise dozens of Plan policies and programs without first knowing the degree to which the county has been able to successfully implement the policies and programs that are now in place?

3. No Complete Explanation of Proposed Changes

The most recent staff report on the revision of the Plan was provided to the Board of Supervisors on March 12, 2013. At that time, the county proposed to significantly revise the Plan by altering, deleting and/or adding 138 policies and 75 implementation programs. County staff failed to explain the reasoning behind most of these changes. The staff report contained only four pages of explanation. It provided information on 18 of the most “notable” policy changes and 28 of the most “notable” program changes. The public expects, and the Board is entitled to, a complete explanation for every proposed change in the Plan.

4. No Review and Revision of the 2000 EIR

On Feb. 11, 2011, the Board of Supervisors approved the publication of a Negative Declaration in lieu of the review and revision of the 2000 EIR. The Declaration reflected legal findings by the Board that the revision of the Plan could not possibly harm the environment.

The decision to adopt a Negative Declaration was based on these four findings:

  • The proposed revision does not substantially change the Plan.
  • There are no substantial changes in the circumstances under which the current Plan is being implemented.
  • No new environmental information has become available since 2000.
  • The proposed revision does not create any new land-use entitlements.

But the changes are substantial—both in degree and in number, as will be demonstrated herein. With respect to Finding 2—changed circumstances in Plan implementation—the county decision to discontinue an annual review and reporting after 2003 is indeed a significant change, a procedural breakdown that may have exacerbated environmental problems throughout the county.

No new environmental information since 2000? Really! There’s new environmental information in a variety of areas, including air quality (revised rules, climate change), sources of energy (solar architecture, hydraulic fracturing), water supply (river restoration, groundwater depletion) and transportation (high-speed rail and new strategies for sustainable communities)—just to name of few. In addition, there are new trends in population growth and housing.

Perhaps the greatest change is the county’s inclination to abandon its prohibition against urbanizing unincorporated areas of the county—especially those areas north and east of Fresno. Of note also is the recent Board decision (May 21, 2013) giving the green light to a Friant Corridor Feasibility Study, which will identify and assess opportunities for possible land-use changes and development activities in the unincorporated area of the county along a seven-mile stretch between the city of Fresno and the community of Friant.

As to Finding 4—that the revision does not create new land-use entitlements—it is only necessary to point out that the update of the Plan in 2000, likewise, did not create new entitlements. An EIR was prepared nonetheless.

Friant Ranch Revisited

Prior to 2000, there were a number of attempts to establish large-scale urban projects in unincorporated areas of the county—some successful, some not. For example, in the 1980s there were Millerton New Town and Ball Ranch. In the 1990s, there were Quail Lake Estates and Copper River Ranch.

By the mid 1990s, county residents realized it was time to put an end to urban sprawl, and that’s exactly what happened in 2000 with the development of the current Plan. From that time on, large-scale urban projects could only be situated in areas that already had the infrastructure and services necessary to accommodate them. The basic plan was to infill cities, improve public transportation and develop more livable communities—all the while improving air quality through the elimination of urban sprawl.

In fact, the Plan championed a vision calling for “urban-centered growth.” The Plan language reads, “The plan promotes compact growth by directing most new urban development to incorporated cities and existing urban communities that already have the infrastructure to accommodate such growth [italics added].” Importantly, the small community of Friant did not have the infrastructure or services necessary to accommodate a project the size of Friant Ranch.

Madera County, on the other hand, has no such proscription. The Madera County General Plan supports the development of new growth areas in unincorporated areas of the county. We can see what’s happening there in the way of sprawl. Madera County got it wrong; Fresno County got it right.

The Fresno County prohibition against large-scale urban development in unincorporated areas of the county held until 2011 when the Board approved the 2,500-unit Friant Ranch retirement community near Friant. Friant Ranch may be the first of many new urban projects in the Millerton area. For example, waiting in the wings and situated adjacent to Friant Ranch is the 5,500-unit Wellington Ranch project. The project is listed as “proposed” in a 2010 Fresno County study of the widening of Millerton Road.

Other than Friant Ranch, the only significant re-designation of agricultural land in Fresno County after 2000 occurred in 2003 with the re-designation of 200 acres at Highway 99 and American Avenue. Land designated “Agriculture” was re-designated “Public Facilities” to allow the construction of a Juvenile Justice Campus Facility.

Failure to Prepare the Friant-Millerton Regional Plan

At the time the Plan was approved in 2000, there was considerable pressure to develop the area northeast of Fresno. A 2003 staff report to the Board reported that three years earlier, in 2000, there were 16 special projects proposed for the Friant-Millerton area, most of which were Plan amendments requested by property owners or other interested parties. Three of those projects were in proximity to the community of Friant.

To address this pressure, the Board wrote into the Plan a provision to study the possibility of opening that area to urban development. The Board did so by adopting a policy that called for the development of a Friant-Millerton Regional Plan by the end of fiscal year 2002–2003. Not surprisingly, the plan was never developed.

Policy LU-H.8

The County shall prepare a regional plan for the Friant-Millerton area…. In the near- to mid-term, planning and development in the area should focus on expanding and enhancing the area’s recreational activities and resources. In the long-term, the area may be suitable for urban development… [italics added]

The new regional plan shall at a minimum address the following key issues….Expansion and enhancement of recreation activities and facilities centered on Millerton Lake and the San Joaquin River….Open space and natural resource protection….Groundwater and surface water availability….Wastewater disposal limitations and options….Development of affordable housing, particularly for workers at recreational and related tourist facilities in the area….Suitability of the area for future long-term urbanization and options for how this might occur (e.g., County specific plan, city annexation, or city incorporation)…

Immediately prior to Plan adoption in 2000, the phrase long-term was clearly defined in drafts of the Plan, and the public knew exactly what the phrase meant. But then the Board muddied the waters on the day of Plan adoption by removing that definition from the Plan.

“Delete reference to the 2020 time horizon in the last statement of the first paragraph regarding the Friant-Millerton Regional Plan:

‘In the long-term, (Beyond the 2020 time horizon of this General Plan), the area may be suitable for urban development….’”

The question today is whether deleting the definition changed the intent of the Plan—which was to forestall the development of large-scale urban projects in that area of the county—or whether the deletion signaled a change in policy to support urbanization of the Friant-Millerton area prior to 2020.

The lack of a definition complicates matters, but clues to the meaning of the phrase long-term can still be gleaned from statements in the 2000 EIR and from statements in county staff reports written after 2000. For example, below are two citations from the Final EIR that address long-term planning for the Friant-Millerton area.

The intent of the language in Policy LU-H.8 is to hold the area in reserve pending a future determination concerning its use for recreation and resource protection versus urbanization. (Final EIR, pages 3–58)

The growth assumptions…in the General Plan Update did not indicate a need to open up additional unincorporated land for urban development within the 20-year timeframe (2020). However, Policy LU-H.8 acknowledges that the Friant-Millerton area “in the long-term…may be suitable for urban development.” (Final EIR, pages 3–83)

Then there is this informative statement from the Oct. 26, 2004, staff report requesting authorization from the Board to proceed with the preparation of the Friant Ranch Specific Plan. Staff listed several Plan policies that might be in conflict with the proposed development, among them the following:

Friant-Millerton Regional Plan: Consideration of near-term urban development [Friant Ranch] in an area planned for recreational activities and resources during the life of the adopted General Plan, and pending development of a regional plan to guide urban conversion. (County Staff Report, Oct. 26, 2004, pages 3–4)

These citations illustrate clearly that the EIR consultants and county staff viewed the phrase long-term as disallowing large-scale urban development in the Friant-Millerton area during the life of the General Plan and until the development of a regional plan for that area.

Revision in Support of Sprawl?

The county is proposing to revise dozens of policies and implementation programs. And while it is not possible to address all the changes being proposed, it is possible to highlight revisions that may lead to renewed urban sprawl.

Policy LU-A.1 is arguably the most important land-use policy in the Plan because it’s the primary policy directing urban development to areas planned for such development, in other words, to areas where supporting public facilities and infrastructure exist. The policy reads as follows:

Policy LU-A.1

The County shall maintain agriculturally-designated areas for agriculture use and shall direct urban growth away from valuable agricultural lands to cities, unincorporated communities, and other areas planned for such development where public facilities and infrastructure are available.

The proposed revision adds a small but significant phrase to the policy. Some feel the intent of the revision is to allow urban development most anywhere in the county as long as developers are willing to “plan for” and provide needed public facilities and infrastructure. They see this as a return to urban sprawl.

Proposed Revision

The County shall maintain agriculturally designated areas for agriculture use and shall direct urban growth away from valuable agricultural lands to cities, unincorporated communities, and other areas planned for such development where public facilities and infrastructure are planned for and/or available.

Below is another troubling policy change. At present, Policy ED-B.11 promotes the development of visitor-serving attractions and accommodations in areas of the county frequented by tourists. Such amenities might include attractions such as hiking trails and historical sites or accommodations such as restaurants and hotel facilities.

Policy ED-B.11

The County shall encourage the development of visitor-serving attractions and accommodations in unincorporated areas where natural amenities and resources are attractive and would not be diminished by tourist activities.

Some see the revision of this policy as supporting an expanded range of commercial activities in unincorporated areas of the county, insofar as such businesses could be said to serve tourists in one way or another. Such businesses could include everything from tanning salons to mini-malls.

Proposed Revision

The County shall encourage the development of visitor and expansion of businesses serving attractions and accommodationsvisitors in unincorporated areas where natural amenities and resources are attractive and would not be diminished by tourist activities.

Hundreds of Changes

The county is proposing more than 200 changes to the Plan. A number of these changes will weaken it. Some revisions call for replacing the word shall with the word should. Below is one example. In this particular case, replacing shall with should could weaken the county’s resolve to periodically review the Plan. Perhaps the county wants to avoid future periodic reviews altogether.

Revision of Policy LU-H.14

The County shall should conduct a major review of the General Plan, including General Plan Policy Document and Background Report, every five years and revise it as deemed necessary.

There are also proposals to eliminate all or portions of some policies and programs. Examples include proposals to eliminate the independent audit of the county’s success in achieving its Economic Development Strategy, to eliminate a statement in support of moderately priced multifamily employee housing for the Friant area and to eliminate the development of a process to resolve water supply problems in the county.

These proposed changes are worrisome—even more so when the county fails to explain their need. But, notwithstanding the effort to understand the net effect of each and every revision, the public may need to weigh in on a larger concern. Indications are that the county may be out of compliance with the Plan in yet another way. Over the years, the county may have adopted procedures that are in direct opposition to those expressed in the Plan. Finding alternate ways of implementing the Plan might prove a good thing, but doing so without amending the Plan is not.

Here’s an example. Implementation Program ED-A.A no longer functions as prescribed. It appears that Plan directives were significantly changed without first amending the Plan. Below is the current wording of that program:

Implementation Program ED-A.A

The County shall create an economic development staff position(s) in the County Administrative Office and the Planning & Resource Management Department to serve as liaison/facilitator and support for the economic development implementation program and the Action Team.

In 2003, the county was largely in compliance with this program and did have a staff position in the County Administrative Officer’s office that supported the county’s economic development program and the Action Team overseeing that program. But somewhere along the way the county decided to farm out that responsibility to another agency. The county staff position is gone, and the Action Team no longer functions. What’s written in the Plan doesn’t match what’s happening on the ground. Now the county wishes to retroactively revise the Plan to reflect current practice. Below is the proposed revision:

Proposed Revision

The County shall provide resources create an economic development staff position(s) in the County Administrative Office and the Planning & Resource Management Department tp serve as for a liaison/facilitator (e.g., staffing, contract with an agency, or other means) and to support for the economic development implementation program, Fresno Regional Enterprise Zone, and the Action Teams.

Whether it’s best to have an outside agency implement/oversee the county’s economic strategy is not the issue. What’s important is that the county departed from the approved implementation program without first revising the Plan. The situation calls into question the integrity of all 176 implementation programs.

Final Comments

The county has failed to adequately implement and monitor the General Plan. The environment and social effects of that failure are hard to judge—largely because there is so little information on Plan implementation. As more people look into how the Plan is implemented, additional problems will undoubtedly surface.

Sadly, the county is proposing to revise the Policy Document without revising the Background Report, without preparing a status report on Plan implementation, without revising the 2000 EIR and without explaining the purpose behind most of the proposed changes.

The problems facing this county are daunting: economic distress, renewed urban sprawl, decaying inner cities, an unreliable water supply, poor air quality and so on. These problems need to be addressed comprehensively and decisively. With few exceptions, the proposed revision of policies and implementation programs will lessen the county’s commitment to resolving these problems, thereby increasing the likelihood that problems will be more intense and of longer duration. In addition, the proposed revision will likely be adopted by the Board without a clear understanding of changed conditions and without an appraisal of the effectiveness of the current Plan.

It’s important to acknowledge that our 2000 General Plan is well-written, a first-rate plan. It’s a proactive plan—not a plan to be adopted and shelved. It directs the execution of 176 programs designed to implement 673 policies affecting the quality of our lives. The work is a mountain and a half.

When was the last time you heard a Board member ask staff to report on the implementation of a particular Plan program or to hold a public workshop on Plan implementation? Clearly, our Board of Supervisors is not properly engaged in the implementation of the Plan. Maybe they’re overwhelmed by work. Maybe they have other concerns. The reasons are not important.

From the Plan’s point of view, it is what it is. Isolation. Abandonment. Death by design.


Radley Reep is a retired teacher and a local environmental activist. Contact him at 559-326-6227 or at


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    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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