By Gary Lasky
Last month, we compared the reasonable land-use planning policies of the City of Fresno with the contrasting situation in Tulare County, just 45 minutes to the south, where the Board of Supervisors majority is ideologically opposed to government planning. According to Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida, it is not up to the county to “direct development anywhere.”
Although the majority of Fresno County supervisors are opposed to government regulation, the situation is more surreal in our neighboring counties.
Fresno’s Wild West Neighbors
The “wild west” culture of San Joaquin Valley development is embodied by the Tulare County supervisors, who refuse to protect the population’s health and welfare. Instead of balancing these obligations against the rights of private property owners, they tip the scales to impose a lopsided ideology, a vision of government supportive of development no matter the cost to the environment. If we need to destroy our rural beauty and quiet and our productive farmland to bring in construction projects, in the name of progress and jobs, well, too bad. We need to let market-driven development determine the future of the county.
As with Tulare County,in Madera County,a half hour’s drive north of Fresno, the Tea Party culture has a strong grip. It frames,in the public’s mind,the philosophy that a good government is a nonexistent government. Not surprisingly, a noticeable lack of land-use activism can be found in these two counties.
This may sound depressing, but a silver lining is here: To conservation activists who desire to see a government that is more responsive to the environment and the wishes of the populace, the reluctance on the part of these counties to comply with the requirements of California land-use law, in general, and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), in particular, makes these counties vulnerable to legal challenges.
CEQA in a Nutshell
CEQA is our 40-year-old state law that calls on city and county governments to make fair and transparent land-use decisions, to require a “fair argument” as to why a development should proceed, to reveal the likely environmental impacts and to offer all feasible mitigations to curb the harmful effects of a project.
CEQA also requires the lead agency to identify indirect environmental impacts and cumulative impacts: similar projects in the study region that have already been built or that are likely to be in the foreseeable future. A CEQA action may be the approval of a development project, a highway or other action (see related article in this issue on the attempted privatization of the City of Fresno residential trash collection).
Although conservative politicians (notably State Sen. Michael Rubio [D–Bakersfield]) have unfairly accused environmental advocates of “abuse” of CEQA, it is still our most effective tool for improving California land-use planning by opening up land-use planning to public scrutiny, rather than behind-the-scenes negotiations with powerful development interests.
Rio Mesa and the Tesoro Viejo Project
Taken together, plans are on the books for what reporter George Hostetter called “several proposed mega-projects” on the Madera County side of the San Joaquin River, Rio Mesa, that could total 100,000 new residents (Fresno Bee, Dec. 4, 2012). A similar-sized population of residents near Millerton Lake on the Fresno County side of the river has also been proposed, including Friant Ranch, Millerton New Town and other developments. The Rio Mesa proposals are no more than a pipe dream without a reliable water supply and road infrastructure.
Tesoro Viejo is a glaring example of the results of the wild west development culture. This project proposes 5,200 homes and 3 million square feet (71 city blocks!) of commercial and light industrial development. Its proposed location is in rural Madera County, between Highway 41 and the San Joaquin River, and south of Avenue 15. The traffic effects would be phenomenal. Although the developer plans to create jobs near this housing, the history of California development shows there are no job guarantees, especially the living wage jobs required by home buyers.
A project of the McCaffrey development company, Tesoro Viejo has yet to break ground due to legal holdups. To date, the required environmental documents have been rejected twice by our state court judges—hardly a group of liberal activists—and upheld once on appeal.
In 2009, the watchdogs at the Madera Oversight Coalition (MOC) took the project proponents and the County of Madera to court based on an inadequate analysis of the project’s impacts on local water supply, traffic and cultural resources. Teaming with the nonprofit Revive the San Joaquin and the Dumma tribe, the MOC won in Superior Court and again, in 2011, after the county appealed to California’s 5th District Court of Appeals.
On Nov. 6, 2012, the Madera County Board of Supervisors approved the Revised Tesoro Viejo Environmental Impact Report (EIR). In the words of Bruce Gray of the MOC, “little has changed” in the new EIR.In December 2012, the MOC filed a legal challenge to the new Tesoro Viejo EIR. This time, lawsuits were also filed by the City of Fresno, Caltrans, the Coalition for Clean Air and Revive the San Joaquin.We are watching events carefully.
Gary Lasky is an environmental and community activist in Fresno. Contact him at email@example.com or 559-790-3495.