Supervisors Reverse Development Restrictions

Cover of the Fresno County General Plan brochure. Photo courtesy of
Cover of the Fresno County General Plan brochure. Photo courtesy of

(Editor’s note: The article below is reprinted by permission of Fresnoland. The Board of Supervisors vote on the issue referenced in the article took place after the original publication, therefore the first few paragraphs have been updated to reflect the outcome of that vote.)

In a move reminiscent of the 1980s, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (BOS) on Feb. 20 abandoned decades-old planning guidelines and opened the door for extensive sprawl projects around the Fresno area, including a 7,000-acre luxury home development along the Kings River, a 500-acre development north of Copper River and a vast industrial park in south central Fresno.

The newly approved Fresno County General Plan, a result of a sweeping 20-year review, will remove County programs for riparian protection zones and comprehensive wildlife and wetland inventories prior to subdivision approvals.

The Feb. 20 vote was the culmination of a years-long push by two power brokers, Ben Ewell and John Harris, to reimagine a gorgeous 7,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills above Sanger as a future hub for luxury homes and a new college campus. Three years ago, the BOS unanimously agreed to put the area in its new General Plan.

Despite the huge implications of the industrial park and Kings River project, the updated General Plan lacks substantial analysis of the impact of these massive land-use plans, environmental documents show, notably on roads, traffic, climate change and air quality.

Typically, major developments necessitate mitigation measures to curb environmental harm and future plans to pay for infrastructure. But by designating both land proposals as “study areas,” the County avoids counting these projects’ impacts in their environmental review.

Opponents claim it’s a tactic to gain easier approval through piecemeal General Plan amendments down the line, minimizing public oversight of climate and environmental impacts.

This comes as the County’s environmental math is already trending in the wrong direction. Over the coming decades, the County concludes it will increase greenhouse gas emissions during the life span of the General Plan. This comes despite state laws requiring emissions to be cut by up to 80% by 2050.

The County “doesn’t have any hope” to meet these climate goals, said Jeremy Clar, a Sierra Club watchdog.

“With this plan, we’re going backwards for the next 20 years. We’re going to have more pollution and more health consequences going forward.”

County planners warn that new development outlined in the General Plan update will increase greenhouse gas emissions, requiring a Climate Action Plan to curb the trend. However, officials say work on such a plan won’t begin until at least 2026.

Funding efforts for the vital emissions-reduction program are stalled. The County hasn’t attempted to find financing, according to an e-mail from the County’s assistant planning director Bernard Jimenez.

The County’s move to defer the major planning implications of its General Plan highlights a troubling pattern, critics say. After the last major change to the County’s General Plan, according to Radley Reep, a County watchdog, Fresno County failed for a decade to fulfill its legal obligation to report on the implementation of the General Plan and its associated mitigation measures.

Since 2018, Fresno County also has not levied developer fees intended to fund major public facilities. Now, as the push to leapfrog over farmland and plant homes in hillsides gears up, the County has removed this developer fee program altogether in its new General Plan.

“This is unacceptable,” said Gary Lasky, co-chair of the local Sierra Club chapter. “The County has kicked the can down the road, and now it seems like they’ve given up. They’ve greenlighted sprawl without restriction.”

Developers Battle for Control of Kings and San Joaquin River Areas

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Fresno County’s two vital waterways seemed to be at a turning point. In prior decades, raw, unchecked sprawl encroached on river habitats on the San Joaquin and Kings rivers, including 15,000 acres of foothill development by John Bonadelle.

In 2000, the County’s General Plan unveiled a bold vision: partnering with the San Joaquin River Conservancy to create a parkway master plan, exploring mass transit for river access and enacting a riparian ordinance for stricter environmental reviews of development proposals. All under a comprehensive set of plans, with a 2003 deadline, meant to finally protect the rivers while steering growth toward existing cities.

Yet, year after year, progress reports revealed a troubling pattern of inaction. For the past two decades, Fresno County has failed to implement any of these programs. Now, the revised General Plan faces fierce criticism for erasing those earlier commitments.

In this year’s update, County planners are poised to gut some of the 2000 plan’s crucial environmental protections.

Gone will be four programs safeguarding endangered species, fish, wetlands and riparian habitats. Also erased is the promise to create the Friant-Millerton plan, designed to enhance recreational access to the San Joaquin River. Perhaps most alarmingly, the blueprint for future Kings River regional plans could be handed over to developers themselves.

This new approach, some fear, paves the way for large-scale subdivisions that would replicate the leapfrog development that is occurring in Madera County.

Such a shift signals a potential reversal to the pre-1991 era for the county, when a tax-sharing agreement solidified Fresno’s role as the center of residential and commercial real estate growth in exchange for the County’s 62% share of the property tax revenue.

“The desire for projects similar to Riverstone and Rio Vista is going to be at Friant—or somewhere where people feel like they’re not in an urban setting,” said Brandau. “I want to allow that to happen.”

Critics allege the County has given no justification for the deletions of the four environmental programs. Fresno County’s chief planner for the General Plan, Chris Motta, could not be reached for comment. While the revised General Plan retains broad goals for preserving riparian areas, its reliance on a single program focused solely on land acquisition leaves an unclear path for implementation.

Responding to environmental groups that challenged the County’s dearth of regional programs for riparian habitats, the County said that it will evaluate riparian impacts on a case-by-case basis as development proposals arrive.

But the County’s plan to balance preservation with development on local rivers might be impossible. Critics call the General Plan’s requirement for developers to restore three acres of riparian habitat for every acre they pave over unrealistic.

Riparian restoration carries a hefty price tag, reaching up to $500,000 per acre. To illustrate, the 7,000-acre Harris/Ewell proposal could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in mitigation costs for riparian damage alone.

And with no countywide restoration program, enforcement and financial responsibility remain major questions, said Dan O’Connell, executive director of the Central Valley Partnership.

“There’s no logical justification for the exclusion of these programs. It will create harm,” said O’Connell, who’s also a board member at the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

“It brings up the question of ‘why would you do this?’ It’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.”

The Kings River Conservancy, which is led by Vernon Crowder, a former Bank of America executive who is one of Harris’s ex-bankers, told the Fresno Bee a few years ago that the Conservancy will likely not oppose Harris’s development.

County’s New Farmland Program “Designed to Be Meaningless,” Expert Says

Fresno County’s changes to farmland protection policies are also facing a backlash. The previous plan included 28 measures aimed at preserving agricultural land, but the County is now scrapping some of these.

Policies allowing for agricultural preserves within areas slated for industrial or residential development are being removed, along with six ag conservation programs.

Critics warn this weakens protections, opening the door to the loss of valuable farmland. The revised plan also allows residential development in rural areas lacking infrastructure, a significant departure from the old plan’s focus on building only where infrastructure already exists.

With development pressures increasing, Fresno County’s plan to prevent overall loss of prime farmland is under fire. O’Connell, who previously worked at the American Farmland Trust, calls the County’s ag solution “unenforceable,” by offering developers a vague “menu” of options rather than clear requirements.

O’Connell advocates for a simple 1:1 mitigation policy: for every acre paved over by developers, an acre of comparable farmland must be permanently protected. Instead, he argues, the County’s approach is deliberately weak.

“These policies are designed to be meaningless,” O’Connell charged. “For the nation’s top agricultural county, this shows a complete disregard for preserving our best farmland.”

Fresno County’s farmland mitigation policy echoes the controversial approach adopted by the City of Fresno. In 2017, the City of Fresno abandoned its strict 1:1 farmland mitigation requirement after intense lobbying from local developers.

The City of Fresno shifted to a “menu” approach after well-known developer Darius Assemi and his lobbyist, Jeff Roberts, protested to the Fresno City Council that the 1:1 requirement was “too restrictive.” Since then, only one project has required farmland mitigation, according to City records.

On top of that, Fresno County’s mitigation plan includes loopholes that essentially render farmland protection requirements optional for developers.

According to the County’s General Plan, developers could avoid having to replace lost farmland if their project aligns with a groundwater sustainability plan or offers “overriding economic, legal, social, technological or other benefits” that supposedly outweigh the loss of agricultural land.

“Basically, you can run a train through that. It’s designed to not be effective. It’s a power play,” said O’Connell. “They [the County] are so vested in being able to literally just do what they want. It’s an affront to any sort of good planning.”


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