This map depicts the Friant Ranch project and six other projects that are proposed in Fresno County north of the City of Fresno. Source: Friant Ranch Environmental Impact Report

Lawsuit Challenges Approval of Friant Ranch Project

Three local organizations have sued Fresno County to challenge the Board of Supervisors’ approval of the Friant Ranch project. The Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters of Fresno and Revive the San Joaquin filed suit on March 7 in Fresno County Superior Court. The landowner, the Bigelow-Silkwood family, and the developer, Bigelow Silkwood Friant Ranch LP, were also named as defendants. Two separate lawsuits were filed earlier against Fresno County on March 4 by the City of Fresno and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

The proposed Friant Ranch project would develop 940 acres of agricultural grazing land seven miles north of the City of Fresno. The Friant Ranch project is described as an “active adult community” that would consist of some 2,500 new residences and 300,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The goals of this lawsuit are to force the withdrawal, rewriting and recirculation of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Plaintiffs want the EIR to account for the full costs of the project, including the hundreds of millions of dollars required to construct an adequate transportation system for the 5,000 future residents, plus retail shoppers, planned for Friant Ranch. The real costs of sprawl in Fresno County include the impact of increased auto emissions on our ozone and air pollutant levels, as well as the price we pay for increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“What concerns us is this ‘leapfrog’ development because it will increase vehicle miles traveled and air pollution,” according to Sarah Sharpe, environmental health program director for Fresno Metro Ministry. “Fresno County has some of the highest rates of asthma in the nation. We need to protect the public health through better planning. We need to focus on infill and more compact, transit-oriented communities: walkable and bikeable.”

“Consistent with the General Plan, Fresno County must plan development closer to existing communities, not in the middle of bucolic pastures miles from town,” said Gary Lasky, vice chair of the Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter. “This project takes us in the wrong direction. ‘Leapfrog sprawl’ is simply unaffordable to our county’s treasury and to the taxpayers of Fresno County. When smart growth principles are violated, the taxpayers are stuck with the bill.”

The suit was filed because the final project EIR fails to examine and account for numerous significant adverse environmental impacts from this project, including impacts on transportation, air and water quality and parklands. An EIR is usually prepared by consultants under the direction of county staff, but in the case of the Friant Ranch project the EIR was prepared by consultants under the direction of other consultants.

The project also conflicts with a number of Fresno County General Plan core goals and policies, including policies intended to preserve agriculture, open space and minimum levels of service on rural roads. The suit asserts that the approved project is inconsistent with the county’s General Plan policies directing large-scale urban development to communities with already-in-place infrastructure: water and sewer, roads and transit options, and police and fire services. The General Plan requires orderly and logical development close to established urban areas.

There are also cumulative effects from a host of pending development projects that will affect the quality of river water. Treated effluent from this and other reasonably foreseeable projects will make its way to into the San Joaquin River, threatening salmon recovery efforts.

Chris Acree, executive director of Revive the San Joaquin, opposes the Friant Ranch project: “Our efforts to restore the San Joaquin River and bring back salmon depend on smart planning and clean water.” Acree adds, “Friant Ranch developers are passing on an expensive debt to the taxpayers. We can’t afford to rush into another poorly designed rural ‘new town’; we can barely even provide services to our existing rural communities.”

Regarding the parties to the lawsuit,

  • the Sierra Club strives to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the earth, as well as to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources;
  • the League of Women Voters of Fresno is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government; and
  • Revive the San Joaquin is a grassroots nonprofit organization working for the protection and restoration of the San Joaquin River.

Handling the lawsuit is the Law Offices of Babak Naficy. Since 2003, Naficy has advised and represented nonprofit environmental groups before local, state and federal agencies and in court.

Challenging the Status Quo to Effect Change
By Gary Lasky

There is a natural tendency to believe that we, the public, hold no power to halt new housing development projects, even when we believe that they will be harmful to our quality of life. One reason for this is the constant stream of messages from the mainstream media about how the private sector is in charge of our world, that government is broke and that “government is the problem,” in the words of Ronald Reagan.

Much of this is myth-making at its best. It is important for the corporate masters to maintain their control, and one of their principal tools is the elimination of hope that change can come for the better.

In fact, it is a carefully crafted fallacy that people’s voices don’t count. The first thing you can do to make a difference is to pierce these fallacies. When we individually take small actions, we can collectively see change at work.

Here are some common fallacies and rebuttals about development.

Fallacy: “Environmental protection hurts jobs.”

Rebuttal: Building Friant Ranch would create temporary jobs in housing construction, but the only long-term jobs would be in its city-block-sized retail strip mall. These are low-wage jobs without benefits. They would drain customers and sales from existing businesses within the City of Fresno. The truth is that environmental protection can create jobs. One of the fastest-growing sectors in the California economy is alternative energy and energy conservation.

Fallacy: “Development pays for itself.”

Rebuttal: The only way that a housing development could finance itself is if the developer and homebuyers fund the infrastructure (roads, sewers, water supplies, schools) needed to first construct the development and then to maintain that development into the future. When economic times were good, counties negotiated with developers to pay for their own initial infrastructure. Now that we are in a severe recession, the counties have been without the necessary backbone to stand up for its (the taxpayers’) treasury.

The stark fact is that development never pays for itself. It is assumed that property taxes will pay for public services such as fire and police, but the costs of road upkeep rely on state and local governments, agencies that secure the needed funds from—you guessed it—the next upcoming real estate development. The result is an-ever tightening noose in which cities and counties must grow to pay yesterday’s bills. The solution? Break the cycle and conduct a proper accounting of the true costs of development.

Fallacy: “Decisions are made behind closed doors. Once we hear about a project, it is too late.”

Rebuttal: Developers do everything they can to ensure their investments will bear fruit and so do develop sometimes cozy relationships with county planning staff and developers. One of the landowners and principal proponents of the Friant Ranch project is Frank Bigelow, chair of the Madera County Board of Supervisors (Friant Ranch is just a quarter-mile from Madera County).

But there are other layers of review—hurdles that development projects must clear. These include the courts. EIRs have clear rules that must be followed, and when county government does not adhere to these the courts can and will order the county to instigate a do-over. These procedural safeguards are designed to hold politicians accountable to the voting public and to ensure that decisions are made with full disclosure to the public of the environmental impacts of a proposed development project.

Fallacy: “My vote doesn’t matter.”

Rebuttal: In November 2012, the chair of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors nearly lost to an upstart. Steve Worthley was caught by surprise when newcomer Brian Rouch made it into a runoff and proceeded to nearly defeat the incumbent, ultimately losing to Worthley by only 109 votes (1.0%). Environmental activists are now taking aim at other county supervisors in the Central Valley who are up for reelection in 2012.

How You Can Make a Difference

Here are three things that you can do to halt outrageous development projects, starting with Friant Ranch:

  • Make a financial contribution to one of the lawsuits designed to stop the Friant Ranch project. The Sierra Club is accepting tax-deductible checks.
  • Learn how to challenge developments like Friant Ranch. A working group is organizing to train residents on how to comment on land-use decisions. We are gearing up so that a team of volunteers will be ready when the Fresno County General Plan Update is released this summer.
  • Attend meetings. Volunteer activists are needed to attend the meetings of County and City of Fresno agencies that affect our environment and quality of life. Help is available from veteran activists to show you what is needed. The only requirement is an ability to attend daytime meetings and to take notes.

 

  • 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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