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Big plans for a new Clovis-sized community in Fresno stumble under weight of multi-billion-dollar price tag

The city of Fresno is pressing to find ways to pay for a 9,000 acres housing project in Southeast Fresno.
Gregory Weaver
The city of Fresno is pressing to find ways to pay for a 9,000 acres housing project in Southeast Fresno.

The Dyer Administration's ambitious plan to build a sprawling 45,000-home community in southeast Fresno has been put on hold, city officials confirmed to Fresnoland.

The administration's once-ambitious timeline for the Southeast Development Area (SEDA), aiming to fast track approvals by late 2023, has crumbled under the weight of multiple challenges.

“We’re not settled on a timeframe,” for SEDA's approval, said Fresno City Manager Georgeanne White.

Unsolved problems over financing the project’s multi-billion-dollar price tag, and new troubling population projections from the state Department of Finance have deflated the city's growth machine.

In the coming months, the Dyer Administration will take a closer look at the feasibility of the 9,000-acre development.

“We want to make sure we're being as thorough as possible.” White said. “We're still meeting with stakeholders.”

Cracks are beginning to emerge with even one of SEDA's biggest boosters – councilmember Luis Chavez.

“I’m in favor of postponing it," Chavez said about the consequential SEDA vote.

Chavez criticized the Fresno-Madera Building Industry Association (BIA), accusing the influential construction group of failing to bring ideas to the table regarding the project's financial blueprint.

"I have not heard from the BIA on what their vision is," Chavez said. “Gone are the days when the city allows development to happen with no plan to pay for it.”

The debate over who will take on the debt for the sprawling subdivision - either the public or developers – has emerged as a generational showdown for a city that has charged developers some of the lowest impact fees in the state for decades.

White was clear that the buck stops with SEDA: public subsidies for the project’s streets, parks and sidewalks are off the table.

“We don't have the bonding capacity to pay for a billion dollars in infrastructure," she said. “The only infrastructure we talked about bonding is a sewer trunk line. The repayment stream would be developer impact fees.”

Mike Prandini, the head of the BIA, a consortium of developers who represent the handful of families that have converted roughly 120-square miles of Fresno farmland to suburbia, said that finding new ways to pay off SEDA’s cost is going to be challenging for the development industry.

“There are a lot of voters in SEDA who don't want to be in a special financing district,” he said.

Many of SEDA's existing residents are deeply suspicious about paying fees for new residents in $600,000 homes, he said.

Responding to Chavez’s criticism, Prandini suggested tapping into the public utility department's coffers, specifically “rate fees” generated by sewer and water bills, to fund SEDA's infrastructure development.

“That's a tough sell,” he admitted.

Anti-sprawl, pro-union group pressured Dyer

As planners take a closer look, there are other significant hurdles for SEDA to overcome.

The Dyer administration may still prioritize the project, but the political landscape surrounding it has shifted dramatically due to concerns about urban blight and the Valley’s non-unionized workforce for building single-family homes.

Inside Fresno’s backrooms, leaders from a group called the Greenfield Coalition have met with Dyer administration officials and city council members about the proposed plan.

The group mobilized after official blueprints for SEDA were released in July, and has grown to over 100 members, including a 100,000-member labor council, the State Center Federation of Teachers, and soon-to-be-ex Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson.

The local organization threw a wrench in the city’s plans for SEDA, highlighting the significant discrepancies between the state’s population projections and the city’s internal data.

Dillon Savory, the executive director of the Central Labor Council and one of the leaders of the Greenfield Coalition, said the city's flawed environmental review for SEDA has helped stop the project – for now.

For example, SEDA' s new residents would add 510,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year – a 25% increase in the city's overall emissions and a reversal of decades of climate change progress. The city proposed no mitigation in its environmental review for this increase.

“The city not being legally compliant with an environmental review was our strongest tool,” Savory said.

The project’s financial uncertainty and steep environmental costs, Savory said, should push the city to reconsider whether SEDA is the best way to meet the area’s housing goals.

Or whether reinvesting in downtown Fresno and along the Blackstone corridor – the city's so-called "boulevard of broken dreams" – would be a more fruitful avenue for the city to start planning for.

“I'm sure they (the developer lobby) are waiting for a window of opportunity that is less organized for community and labor. That is why we have to start a new general plan process immediately. It will dictate how the community wants to build out Fresno: infill vs. the fringe.”

The city's planning department is only working on a so-called "refresh" of the 2014 general plan, which incorporates new state laws on climate change and environmental justice.

“We're not waiting for the general plan refresh to potentially approve the SEDA specific plan," White said.

The BIA's Prandini said that high hopes for downtown and Blackstone need a reality test. SEDA' s “been in the works” for three straight mayoral administrations, he said, and the industry is determined to see it approved soon.

“This isn't New York or San Francisco. People want to purchase a home, rather than high-rise living.”

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