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New Plan For Southwest Fresno Asks Industry To Go Elsewhere

Jeffrey Hess/KVPR
Kimberly McCoy

After decades of complaints from residents, a vote this week by the Fresno City Council could signal what some think is a new direction for southwest Fresno. The city is considering a new specific plan that will guide the future of the 3,000 acre neighborhood west of Highway 99 and south of Highway 180. At its heart is a goal to remake the area, and reduce pollution by telling big industrial facilities to move elsewhere.   

When she was a little girl, Kimberly McCoy lived near some of the heavy industry that marks parts of southwest Fresno.

Because of that pollution, McCoy says she developed severe asthma.

“I was hospitalized twice with pneumonia in the summertime because of my asthma. I was actually placed in an oxygen bubble. So yeah, it was really bad,” McCoy says.

McCoy says her asthma was so bad that her mother had to quit her job to care for her. Her doctors even suggested that the family leave Fresno to find better air, something impossible for a single mother raising two children.

Now 43 years old, McCoy is a mother herself. Still living in southwest Fresno, she says history has repeated itself and her son has also developed severe asthma.

“My son is four years old. Full of life. But when the air quality is bad, I have to keep him in. And to see the look on his face when he can’t go outside and play because of the air quality, he doesn’t understand that,” McCoy says.

McCoy directly blames the pollution from heavy industry in her neighborhood for their conditions.

Air pollution is problematic throughout the Central Valley and in Fresno. However, research shows it’s especially bad in southwest Fresno.

According to the state, some of the most polluted areas in all of California are in southwest Fresno. In part because of the pollution, the life expectancy of residents here is two decades shorter than other neighborhoods.

As a result, McCoy got involved in the work crafting a new city planning document to guide development in her neighborhood. And her one goal? No more heavy industrial developments.

"They deserve to have a healthy neighborhood and clean air. And we just do not want those type of facilities placed here," Kimberly McCoy

“The stench in the air is very, very terrible. They are not good neighbors. They are bad neighbors. So we do not want them placed in south Fresno anymore because that is where they are normally placed at. And residents in south Fresno deserve to have a change. They deserve to have a healthy neighborhood and clean air. And we just do not want those type of facilities placed here,” McCoy says.

And she might be about to get her wish.

For the first time in decades, the Fresno City Council is set to vote this week on a new Southwest Fresno Specific Plan. That’s a document intended lay down ground rules for what can and can’t be built in certain areas of town.

It would make a number of sweeping changes, but the most dramatic is phasing out all industrial zoning. The entire area would be re-zoned only for residential, office, or commercial uses only.

Fresno planning manager Sophia Pagoulatos says southwest Fresno is one of few areas with heavy industrial zoning like meat rendering plants, recycling, and raw goods processing factories located near homes.

Under the plan, if an industrial business wants to change its facility, it would have to move to another part of town. The hope is they would also take some of the negative impacts like air and noise pollution with them.

“(The) operating characteristics of an industrial business affect neighborhoods in a number of ways. So one of those is truck traffic. That is not only pollution. That is a safety concern. That is noise. Sometimes the business itself makes noise,” Pagoulatos says.

Pagoulatos says about 5% of all industrial businesses in Fresno are in the plan’s reach. The plan does not say where the companies would move, but Pagoulatos says the city is looking at options that would concentrate industry in similarly zoned areas.

Ashley Werner with the Leadership Counsel on Justice and Accountability was one of the people heavily involved with drafting the proposed specific plan.

She says even though industrial businesses won’t be forced to relocate right away, the plan is a positive first step for the community.

“What it does do is say that we are going to stop in our tracks with new industrial development. And so that vacant parcels, or as existing industry phases out over time, will be replaced by retail, housing opportunities, and mixed use,” Werner says.

"Every industry is not a negative polluter. Every industry will not give us bad health," activist Bob Mitchell

Werner also thinks this change will attract better commercial choices and draw wealthier people from other parts of town.

This plan is hardly without its detractors. During public comment before the city council, two prominent local developers warned about making the rules too restrictive with regards to what type of housing can be built and where.

Eliminating all industrial zoning also has skeptics, even among people who have fought against pollution for years, like Bob Mitchell.

Mitchell recently told the city council that by phasing out all industry, including lower-polluting light industry, they would in his words ‘shoot yourself in the foot’.

“And I am saying that future requires that there be a positive form of industry for employment for those who reside in our community. Every industry is not a negative polluter. Every industry will not give us bad health,” Mitchell says.

Additionally, phasing out industry over time will do little to help with the pollution problem in the short term. If a business doesn’t change, it doesn’t have to move.

There is nothing in the plan about cleaning up former industrial sites or air quality, although the city says cleaning up a polluted site is normally the job of the company.

The plan is also mum on where the industry would move to if it cannot be in southwest Fresno. So there is the potential that other communities could suffer.

However, the plan as a whole might position the area for new money that could help in the short term. The state has promised to spend $70 million from cap-and-trade funds for green projects and transportation. Mapping out a detailed specific plan with an eye away from industry might make the area more attractive to state regulators.

The vote on initially accepting the planning and beginning environmental review is set for Thursday.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.
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