By Gary Lasky
Los Angeles Times press clippings from Mark Arax’s investigative reporting recall the days—just 15 years ago—when the FBI conducted a sting operation in Fresno. Operation Rezone led to prison sentences or guilty pleas from nine politicians, lobbyists and developers. Bribes to obtain permits and evade zoning and environmental laws were standard practice, a legacy of a small-town-culture-gone-wild in the construction boom. As residential sprawl housing was built, the big payoff came with the conversion of farmland to residential zoning. Productive agricultural lands were liquidated, replaced by one-time home sales revenue. Local government never pushed developers to pay for the full cost of roads, sewers and schools, so taxpayers had to foot the bill.
This picture may be changing today, signaled by the 2012 passage of the City of Fresno’s General Plan Update. Community organizers worked to build unprecedented public participation with the support of the Planning Department, the mayor and the city manager. The General Plan for the first time proposed a majority of development within the city limits. This infill development and the revitalization of downtown Fresno are reasonably progressive measures.
This picture changes abruptly once we travel from Fresno County to visit our San Joaquin Valley neighbors—Tulare County to the south and Madera County to the north—where a small-town atmosphere prevails to this day. As in the days of the Wild West, law enforcement is noticeably absent and a few power brokers call the shots. Development plans are hatched behind closed doors, with the county serving the needs of the powerful. The result: a loss of farmland, a deficit of transparency and democracy in government, and a burden placed on county taxpayer dollars to pay for new infrastructure. Compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), our state environmental planning law, is noticeably absent.
On Aug. 28, after a seven-year, on-again, off-again planning process, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a General Plan Update (GPU) that would open most of Tulare’s farmland and foothills to potential large-scale development. As expected, the Sierra Club promptly sued, claiming violations of state planning laws and CEQA. In a somewhat more surprising move, the City of Porterville sued the county as well.
As in Fresno and Madera counties, the Tulare Board of Supervisors appears to see the creation of new towns and cities as a potential source of revenue, turning a half-blind eye to the effects on land, water and air quality, as well as long-term, negative economic effects on the county and local cities. If allowed to go forward, the Tulare County GPU would set a dangerous precedent for the region, allowing developers and “the market” to decide where and what types of growth will occur. That’s contrary to state law, which decades ago acknowledged that giving too much power to developers in the planning process can lead to disastrous results for our natural resources and our communities.
At the final public hearing, Supervisor Steve Worthley read a preamble to the General Plan Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that could have been written by the Tea Party. It emphasized the mission of the county government to maintain vigilance in the defense of property rights. In the words of Supervisor Allen Ishida, speaking at a public meeting in Three Rivers, “It’s not our job to direct development anywhere.”
Gary Lasky is an environmental and community activist in Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-790-3495.