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‘I want industrial gone.’ Frustrated residents slam southwest Fresno rezone plans

A street view of downtown Fresno with smoggy skies.
Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio
Smog partially obscures the old Security Bank building in downtown Fresno.

This story was updated on Nov. 8 at 9:51 a.m.

Following a controversial rezone last year, industrial landowners in southwest Fresno are moving forward with an even bigger one.

Residents who attended a developers meeting on Monday night at West Fresno Elementary School said the gathering was a farce after a lawyer for a developer made a dubious claim that a watershed community plan was making it harder to clean the air.

The proposal would revert 60 acres at the corner of Elm and Annadale Avenues from mixed-use zoning back to allowing industrial uses. The southwest Fresno rezone would allow industrial businesses on the 60 acres to potentially expand their operations.

Key details – like which industrial expansions would be allowed, or what new industrial uses could be permitted – were left unclear. The developers did not answer a single question from the audience. The city council member who represents the area, Miguel Arias, was not at the meeting and declined to comment on it Tuesday morning.

New businesses, like a fertilizer warehouse, would be allowed with the rezone, said Nick Audino, the leasing agent for the industrial tenants. The rezone application will be submitted within the next month, said a representative from the developer.

The southwest Fresno rezone proposal is walking back one of the most important parts of the Southwest Specific Plan, said resident June Safford, which was to replace industrial businesses with housing, a community college, or retail.

“The only way we will improve is if we get industrial out of our community,” said Safford. “I want it to be businesses, new residential, or maybe a school. But I want industrial gone.”

John Kinsey, a lawyer for the developers, however, said the Southwest Specific Plan was a threat to public health.

Without reverting the 60 acres back to industrial zoning, he argued, industrial operators can’t get the loans they need from banks to decarbonize their business. The residents’ plan would make it harder for the businesses to reduce their emissions in the neighborhood.

“It [the Southwest Specific Plan] makes it harder to electrify their fleet,” Kinsey said.

The assertion Kinsey made to residents is false, according to three banking experts and Audino, the leasing agent.

Banking experts told Fresnoland in May that Kinsey’s concerns are unfounded. Valley Business Bank, a major local bank that finances industrial developers, said the Southwest Specific Plan would not affect the existing tenant’s ability to get financing for new electric vehicles.

On Monday night, Audino, the leasing agent, told Fresnoland his tenants have “never” faced the problem raised by Kinsey.

Kinsey, however, in an interview with Fresnoland, insisted that he was right. He said he knew a banker who could back up his claim but wouldn’t say who.

“I don’t say anything that I think in my heart isn’t accurate,” Kinsey told Fresnoland.

Multiple residents at the meeting said they never believed Kinsey.

Bob Mitchell, a co-chair of the Golden Westside Planning Committee and a participant in the creation of the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, said the meeting was an empty gesture.

“They are telling a whole story of lies,” said Mitchell. “They talk to community, extract our concerns, and do a show for the [city] council to prove they’ve engaged with us. It’s not transparent.”

Southwest Fresno rezone proposal could help improve industrial land values

The Southwest Specific Plan’s complete move away from industrial zoning — and instead to mixed neighborhood use — is a threat to the land values of the city’s recently developed industrial parcels, Kinsey said at the meeting.

The plan grandfathers in current industrial businesses, but doesn’t allow for expansions, and ends the property’s industrial use permit when the grandfathered business leaves, according to Kinsey.

Without potential bidders for new industrial businesses in the future, Kinsey said, the land value could fall “by up to 50%.”

“Those large out-of-state businesses just say: ‘we are not interested,'” he said.

Over the last year, industrial operators have failed to come to a compromise with residents over a new industrial proposal. The rezone proposal presented on Monday offers no new measures from the proposal southwest Fresno residents rejected earlier this year, said Kinsey.

The rezone is needed, said Audino, the leasing agent for the industrial facilities, because the neighborhood’s existing zoning “makes it really hard to lease out new tenants,” he said.

The rezone proposal is “respecting” the community’s plan, Audino said, but converting buildings to less environmentally burdensome uses is unrealistic.

“It’s hard to repurpose those buildings,” he said.

Dr. Dorythea Colley-Williams, a southwest Fresno resident for over 70 years, said the rezone proposal fails to account for the long legacy of premature death in southwest Fresno. The lifespan in the area is 30 years less than Fresno’s wealthiest neighborhoods, according to UC Berkeley. Black women in southwest Fresno face infant mortality rates as high as North Korea, Algeria and Iraq, according to U.S. government data.

Previous reporting by Fresnoland found that a major cause of this public health disaster is institutionalized racism, which has created a network of highways and industrial development that exposes pregnant women in south Fresno to the state’s highest levels of air pollution. This pollution is linked to a mother’s increased risk of preterm birth and fetal death.

“It’s hard to talk sincerely about this rezone,” said Coley-Williams. “We still have no report on the deaths that have been caused by the existing industrial uses.”

At the end of the meeting, Dominic Holland, a pastor for Carter Memorial AME Church, asked the representatives of the industrial developers for a quick vote to see if any residents were in favor of the rezone.

The representative said no.

The meeting, said Mrs. Mary Curry, was meaningless.

“It is all perfunctory. It’ll be enough to go to the council, who will just give the developers what they want.”

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Corrected: November 8, 2023 at 9:51 AM PST
An earlier version of this story misquoted attorney John Kinsey. The story has been corrected to show that Kinsey said: “I don’t say anything that I think in my heart isn’t accurate.” The earlier version also incorrectly identified at least one of the developers associated with the proposal. The story has been corrected.