By Kevin Hall
City leaders and staff are in meetings with some West Fresno residents to discuss the 92.5 acres proposed to be rezoned for industrial use along Elm Avenue, and news of the private negotiations landed like a grenade strike at last month’s planning commission meeting.
As it was supposed to. Pieces of democracy and decorum flew in every direction.
With industrial development forces bearing down on their political futures, District 3 City Council Member Miguel Arias, Mayor Jerry Dyer and District 1 candidate Annalisa Perea—whose father, former Council member turned registered lobbyist Henry R. Perea, is using the land-use debate to raise record levels of developer money for her campaign—are applying every trick in the book. The proposal even appears to be on track for a final decision over the holiday season, a Fresno political theater Christmas classic.
This time they deployed the surprise announcement of backroom dealings and a quick request to remove the item from the commission agenda. Kaboom!
Their mutual goal is to subdue, confuse and divide any opposition: Arias through direct threats and bullying, Dyer through city staff and private meetings and the Pereas through fundraising for a strong pro-developer seat on the City Council.
Elm Avenue is a legacy pollution project for the Perea family. Dad was on the City Council when they created the industrial park, a Fashion Fair–sized collection of parcels along what is the Blackstone Avenue of West Fresno, its iconic north-facing view of downtown known to all.
But, in response to the unprovoked attack, an additional layer of community opposition has emerged, an obvious demand made: that this must become a transparent, inclusive process.
The Elm Avenue rezone scandal began brewing for Arias in early 2019 and grew to involve a pay-to-play scheme through which at least $27,500 in contributions from parties connected to Elm Avenue have reached A. Perea’s campaign account. Arias now stands accused of engineering a separate pay-to-play scheme for a different project, according to Brianna Calix’s reporting in the Sept. 16 Fresno Bee, “Fresno downtown developer accuses councilman of bribery.”
The mayor sent spokesperson Tim Orman to pull the pin. Orman is a conservative campaign consultant brought inside City Hall as a staffer by one-term mayor Lee Brand after the 2016 election. Orman, who now paddles Dyer’s canoe as he steadily works his way toward a public pension, made his way to the muted mic at yet another shabbily run commission meeting to say the city was negotiating privately with community groups and asked that the item be removed from the agenda.
Orman committed to returning in 30 days, promising a solution was close though he offered no description of the process or the people involved. The item was dropped from the agenda nonetheless leaving many on the call shocked and upset; their only remaining option was to speak later in the meeting under public comment knowing no action would be taken or response given.
Commission Chair Kathy Bray had failed at a previous meeting to allow public comment on a motion to table the item, an error she avoided this time rather than rectifying it, with the same result of alienating the public.
So the forces of private interests gained an advantage over the public good at the commission’s Sept. 1 hearing.
Absentee landowners and their elected tools have been practicing such divide-and-rule politics in District 3 for decades, particularly in its West Fresno core, home to some of the city’s most concentrated areas of poverty and pollution. Other Census tracts also ranked worst in the state are found in South Central and Southeast neighborhoods where the city hopes to take their bad faith practices to new, diesel-nauseating lows with a 5,000-acre industrial redevelopment zone, nearly 7% of the entire city.
The city’s dubious strategy is to bulletproof the immense area from any future legal challenges triggered by the public health reviews guaranteed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Yet those guarantees only go so far and can’t stop properly evaluated development.
CEQA creates full disclosure of growth plans and consideration and mitigation of health and other quality of life impacts, which is arguably impossible to do for this large area. Program-level environmental impact reports (EIRs) are meant for much smaller areas with clearly identified projects.
Hanging like a dull-bladed, eight-square-mile guillotine over south Fresno, the deadly scheme’s EIRis about to drop. The plan’s jagged edges work their way in and around thousands of people’s homes, schools, shops, retirement homes, parks and places of work and worship. In many cases, they are simply being erased from the map, rezoned for industrial use.
In north Fresno terms, that much land would cover a large rectangle running between Fashion Fair and Fresno State and all the way up to Riverpark. In south Fresno, that land isn’t filled with neighborhood after neighborhood broke only by shopping centers at intersections and offices along arterial streets. It’s a piecemeal, incomplete jigsaw puzzle shaped by decades of discriminatory land-use practices that have intentionally placed heavily polluting industries next to impoverished neighborhoods, or impoverished the neighborhoods they’ve been placed next to.
Compounding Fresno’s original sins in housing discrimination are its current mortal violations of public health protection laws. Which brings us back to Elm Avenue, the first test of the latest city council, the majority of whom are in their first term, and our 40-year-veteran cop turned rookie mayor.
These people are putty in the hands of developers and major landowners. Their paths to office were paved with contributions from these special interests and more, and all harbor ambitions of higher office, which means even greater financial support will be needed. Worse still, none is versed in land use, transportation or air quality. They don’t know the issues, and they’re being shown the ropes by the developers to whom they’re so grateful for just about everything.
Consider Arias’s life-endangering level of ignorance and hubris. He unequivocally voiced his support for continued industrial growth patterns when he dangerously said to Fresno Bee reporter Callix in February: “This [Amazon 2] agreement is an example that we can facilitate the coexistence of creating new jobs without impacting the health and safety of our neighbors.”
Papi Perea, a registered lobbyist with the city, began this travesty of industrializing one of West Fresno’s nicest boulevards 20 years ago as a City Council member. At the Feb. 3 Planning Commission hearing on the matter, he offered a chilling warning that nothing has changed for him, regardless of the 2018 community-driven Southwest Fresno Specific Plan’s goals:
“We have a new mayor in this city. We have a council that’s working with him, and there are different opinions on how this city is going to move forward. And one of them is going to be what type of an industrial base, what type of business community—along with everything else that’s quality of life—we are going to have.”
Perea hopes to pass along his decrepit vision of a segregated, heavily polluted south Fresno to a new generation of local politicians and a raft of industrial interests are there to fund their shared agenda.
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics on KFCF 88.1 FM every second and fourth Friday, 5 p.m.–6 p.m. He tweets as @airfrezno and @sjvalleyclimate, coordinates an informal network of climate activists at www.valleyclimate.org and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for presentations and information.