In Crisis: Fresno County Long-Range Planning

By Radley Reep

Fresno County 2000–2020 General Plan

In the 1990s, dissatisfied with escalating urban sprawl and chronic poverty in the Central Valley, a cadre of concerned citizens—including civic leaders, economists, environmentalists and educators—joined forces and proposed solutions that were both innovative and courageous.

No solution was more promising than the Fresno County General Plan adopted in 2000. With the update of the Housing Element three years later, the 20-year plan contained 56 broad goals, 673 specific policies and 176 implementation programs. Together they formed a massive work plan with the primary mission to protect farmland and improve the economic health of all county residents. The new plan also identified more than 300 measures to protect the environment.

To ensure that the work was accomplished, the plan identified those responsible for its implementation and provided a performance timetable. Nearly every policy and program included the word “shall,” which was defined in the plan as an “unequivocal directive” to those whose task it was to implement the plan.

But plan implementation did not go well. In a 212-page report to the Board of Supervisors this past May, the League of Women Voters of Fresno demonstrated that as of the end of 2017, the County could only show successful execution of 33% of the plan’s implementation programs.

Why the low percentage? Neglect may have been a factor. After the plan’s adoption in 2000, the County’s planning staff became busy with other matters, the Board had other interests and, quite frankly, the public abandoned its responsibility to monitor the situation—all in all, a perfect storm and a recipe for disaster.

Safeguards

But those who authored the 2000–2020 General Plan were no dumb bunnies, and in addition to incorporating the word “shall” into most every program and policy, they attempted to ensure implementation by integrating two safeguards into the plan: the requirement to conduct a major review of the plan every five years and the requirement to annually monitor progress toward its implementation.

Unfortunately, these two safeguards failed.

Every five years (2005, 2010 and 2015), the County was to have conducted “a major review” of the plan and to have revised it as necessary to keep it current and effective. In 2005, the County began just such a review, but it was never completed. In truth, the review begun in 2005 is still ongoing and is now in its 14th year.

Every five years, the County was to have retained an “independent…institution to conduct an evaluation…of success in achieving the goals and targets of the [County’s] Economic Development Strategy.” The public cannot find evidence that independent evaluations were ever conducted.

Annual reporting of plan implementation is required by statute. Even so, in 2002, the County discontinued the practice. Then in 2012, under pressure from the League, the County resumed the preparation of annual reports.

The League evaluated carefully each of these later reports. None were found acceptable. They all lacked basic components required by statute, such as information on “progress” toward implementing the plan and the degree to which the plan complies with the General Plan Guidelines established by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Had County staff evaluated the plan in light of these guidelines, they would have found, for example, that the plan does not meet state mandates related to air quality, flood management and disadvantaged unincorporated legacy communities.

With regard to the periodic monitoring of measures designed to protect the environment, the County has provided no evidence that it has ever conducted a comprehensive review of the success or effectiveness of these measures.

Why the Plan Is Important

California’s General Plan Guidelines opens with this quote from antiquity: “By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.”—Socrates

What was true then is equally true today. The livability of our cities and communities is rooted in the quality of our land-use planning. A community’s most important planning document is its general plan. The California Supreme Court has labeled it a “constitution for all future development.”

For Fresno County residents, the General Plan embodies a set of goals that represents not the way the county is, but rather the way they want it to be—a county with better-paying jobs, equitable distribution of limited resources, sustainable agriculture, cleaner air and water, and much more. The plan is comprehensive and specific—and county residents have entrusted its implementation to County personnel.

Take, for example, the ongoing struggle to ensure an adequate supply of water countywide. The 2000–2020 plan thoroughly attended to this matter, requiring the County to develop, implement and maintain by 2002…

  • a centralized water resource database, including a county water budget;
  • a groundwater monitoring program;
  • a plan for achieving water resource sustainability; and
  • a process to resolve water supply problems.

With regard to water supply, the 2000–2020 plan was, in the words of Socrates—“admirably wise.” But the plan was only as good as the County’s ability to implement it, and the County has been unable to demonstrate that these programs have been successfully implemented.

Public Engagement in the Update of the Plan

To the surprise of many, the County’s 2000–2020 plan is in the final stages of being comprehensively updated. In the fall of 2015, and without notification to county residents, the five-year review begun in 2005 suddenly grew in scope and morphed into a comprehensive General Plan Update with a new planning horizon to the year 2040.

Perplexed by this course change and frustrated by a lack of information, in October 2017, the League formally petitioned the Board for a public hearing to clarify matters related to the review and update of the plan. The County chose not to honor that request.

A year later, in December 2018, a similar request was collectively made by these organizations:

  • ACLU Foundation of Northern California
  • Central California Asthma Collaborative
  • Central Valley Air Quality Coalition
  • Central Valley Partnership
  • Citizens’ Climate Lobby Fresno
  • Fresno Audubon Society
  • Fresno Building Healthy Communities
  • Fresno County Democratic Party
  • League of Women Voters of Fresno
  • Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno
  • Sequoia Riverlands Trust
  • Sierra Club–Tehipite Chapter
  • Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom–Fresno Branch

Again, the Board chose not to respond.

Residents are sincere in their desire to work cooperatively with the County to develop a 2020–2040 General Plan that’s both equitable and workable. In petitioning the Board, county residents had hoped the Board would agree to support robust civic engagement in long-range land-use planning.

It’s clear that the County has powered down its lines of communication with the public and that citizen participation in land-use planning has been marginalized. The question is whether it would be productive to submit a third request for a Board hearing to clarify the process now underway for amending the plan.

In December 2017, the County completed a draft update of the plan. The timeline for public review of that draft document is uncertain, as is the prospect that county residents will be afforded an opportunity for consequential input concerning the needs and challenges for the new planning period (2020–2040).

(Author’s note: Read more about the County’s failure to implement its General Plan in the Community Alliance archives: “Implementation of the Fresno County General Plan: Death by Design” by Radley Reep; January 1, 2014.)

*****

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 radleyreep@netzero.com.

  • 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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