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West Fresno Residents, Health Advocates Fight City Hall Over Controversial Projects

Rebecca Plevin
Valley Public Radio
Some West Fresno residents are concerned that a proposed zoning change could lead to more health problems in their community.

Bob Mitchell grew up in a vibrant neighborhood.

“We had cleaners, ice cream parlors, and the types of amenities that make a community whole,” Mitchell recalls.

But over the years, the community changed.

“As Fresno continued to grow, West Fresno began to see its demise,” he says. “West Fresno was one of the older communities, but as you can see now, it is just a shell of what it once was.” 

"(West Fresno) is just a shell of what it once was" - Bob Mitchell

Now, many of those amenities are gone. But it does have heavy industrial facilities and lots of low-income housing units. And by many measures, it’s one of the unhealthiest places in the state.

“What we see in southwest Fresno is the result of multiple forces coming together to create a community where poverty, racial segregation, go hand-in-hand with a history of poor environmental choices, poor planning choices, that create communities that don’t work in lots of ways for people, and produce multiple kinds of health problems,” says John Capitman, the executive director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.

Capitman is also the author of a 2012 Fresno State report finding that West Fresno residents have a life expectancy as much as 20 years less than nearby, wealthier neighborhoods.

“It’s a dramatic difference,” he says. “It’s a big difference by the international scale, like comparing Mali and Japan. It’s that kind of large difference.” 

"It's a big difference by the international scale, like comparing Mali and Japan" - John Capitman

And according to a new tool from the California EPA, the 93706 zip code – which includes West Fresno - is the community that’s most vulnerable to environmental burdens in the state.

Compared with other California zip codes, it ranks in the 93rd percentile for groundwater threats, and in the 96th percentile or above for pesticide use, clean-up sites, low-birth weight babies, poverty, and asthma.

West Fresno didn’t become this way overnight.

In the early 1900s, ethnic communities and affordable housing were primarily located in southwest Fresno. As the city grew to the north and east, these demographics – as well as heavy industrial facilities – became established in the corner of the city.

Areas with this development pattern are known as environmental justice communities, and they’re found across the country, says UC Davis professor Jonathan London.

“It’s about a pattern of how, systematically, certain populations, typically people of color, and low-income people, get saddled with the bad stuff, and don’t have access to the good stuff, and West Fresno is definitely a good example of that pattern,” says London, who’s the author of a report that analyzed the most socially and environmentally vulnerable communities in the region, including West Fresno.

In West Fresno, this disparity emerged out of decisions – likely well-intentioned ones – to create jobs in the area, and clean it up. But those economic goals came at the expense of community well-being, says scholar Miriam Zuk, who wrote her doctoral dissertation about downtown revitalization’s impact on the existing communities there.

“Unfortunately, part of it, perhaps, was not strong enough community power, not strong enough voice to counter or ensure that these economic development goals go hand-in-hand with quality of life and environmental health goals, and it seems like those are the same kinds of debates that are playing out today,” Zuk says.

City Hall is currently grappling with two contentious issues related to West Fresno. One is Darling International’s odorous rendering plant. It obtained a Fresno County permit about sixty years ago. But the facility was annexed into the city in 1971, and has operated without a conditional use permit since then.

“The community position is, just be fair to West Fresno,” says city councilmember Oliver Baines, who represents West Fresno. “If you would make this facility get a conditional use permit in northeast Fresno, then make sure they are required to get one in southwest Fresno.” 

"The community position is just be fair to West Fresno" - Oliver Baines

The Concerned Citizens of West Fresno has sued Darling and the city to force the plant to comply with the zoning law.

“We would like for Darling to be relocated, and operate in an area that’s not surrounded by a community of individuals in their homes,” says Bob Mitchell, who is a member of the group. “So that wherever it relocates, it doesn’t put the same type of ominous burden on another community.”

The other issue is a proposed change to a city-wide law that would allow large-scale farming operations on land that is zoned for single-family homes. The proposed change is paid for by Granville Homes. If approved, it would pave the way for Granville to plant a 360-acre almond orchard in southwest Fresno. It would be located on the former Running Horse property, which was supposed to be a luxury home development and golf course - until those plans fell through.

Earlier this month, West Fresno resident and physician Venise Curry expressed concern that the proposed farm, called Mission Ranch, could expose residents to dust, pesticides and more pollution.

“The idea of farming 50,000 trees, and the amount of dust that it would kick up, is a direct problem for those of us who are exposed to the dust,” she says.

The potential health effects of the farm are also a sticking point for councilmember Baines. He says Granville is addressing these concerns.

“What I want to do, is make sure that as Granville, its farming operation, is looking to do this for an interim period, we don’t miss the important health impacts, important water issues, that come along sometimes with farming operations,” Baines says.

As city officials moves forward with these issues, Baines says they should take into account the combined health impacts of all the existing facilities in southwest Fresno.

“Individually, one facility like that may not raise to the level of being a health risk, but what happens is, when you locate lots of facilities like that in a concentrated area, like they do in West Fresno, what you have is cumulative health impacts,” he says.

That idea resonates with academics and community advocates, like Bob Mitchell. 

"We are inundated by enough bad health issues, caused by the cumulative effect of what we have" - Bob Mitchell

“We are inundated by enough bad health issues, caused by the cumulative effect of what we have,” Mitchell says. “We’re constantly fighting against those things that we see as a detriment to the growth and health of our community.”

The City Council is expected to meet this week, in closed session, regarding Concerned Citizens of West Fresno’s lawsuit against the city and Darling. The City Council is expected to vote Nov. 7 on the proposed change to the zoning law.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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