© 2024 KVPR | Valley Public Radio - White Ash Broadcasting, Inc. :: 89.3 Fresno / 89.1 Bakersfield
89.3 Fresno | 89.1 Bakersfield
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fresno County’s new General Plan blows past California climate goals by 300%

Scores of people lined up on Tuesday to give their final say in the county's sweeping new General Plan.
Gregory Weaver
Scores of people lined up on Tuesday to give their final say in the county's sweeping new General Plan.

Fresno County supervisors unanimously approved a controversial update to the county's General Plan on Tuesday, setting the stage for a development boom on the Kings and San Joaquin River that could worsen air quality, accelerate farmland loss, and potentially blow past the county's state-mandated climate emissions budget by 300%.

Tuesday was a landmark vote – arguably one of Fresno County’s most important in the 21st century. The decision will shape the next two decades for Fresno County, impacting its one million residents who face a housing affordability crisis, worsening climate threats, and the state's ambitious goals to slash carbon emissions.

Fresno County's General Plan heavily favors revenue-generating projects, including a massive industrial park, suburban expansion northeast of Fresno, and a controversial 7,000-acre luxury development along the Kings River. The latter was approved Tuesday despite the Planning Commission's recommendation against it.

Critics, including the City of Fresno and the local Sierra Club, warn the overall plan undermines California's rigorous safeguards for the environment and existing communities. They worry that the state’s emissions targets for Fresno County have been blown before the county supervisors have even considered their biggest real estate projects they opened the door for on Tuesday.

Even without the industrial park or new luxury development, county planners estimate the county's emissions would reach 3.2 tons of CO2 annual emissions per person by 2042 – four times the state's mandated target of 0.8 tons. Adding the major land use projects could drive emissions significantly higher.

The county’s plan to address these impacts are inadequate, said Jennifer Clark, the planning director for the City of Fresno.

The city “does not believe the (environmental review) includes sufficient mitigation measures to address impacts related to agricultural resources, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions,” Clark said.

Supervisor Steve Brandau defended the plan, arguing the county needs to provide housing options outside the dense "skyrises" of the City of Fresno. He cited growth pressures from neighboring Madera County.

"The truth is, Madera is building a new city on the other side of the river,” Brandau said.” We have to make adjustments.”

Fresno County's General Plan attorney Sarah Horowitz told the supervisors on Tuesday that the county’s mitigation plans were legally defensible.

The next steps for the county include a Climate Action Plan to address the emissions gap exposed by the General Plan's projections. The county has yet to find funding for the action plan, according to county records. How the county will reconcile its open-ended growth ambitions with state climate mandates remains a major question.

A new era for Fresno County

Fresno County's sweeping General Plan update aims to comply with ambitious new state mandates on housing, environmental justice, and infrastructure for disadvantaged communities. Yet, the plan faces fierce criticism for alleged shortcomings and misaligned priorities.

The county's response to these mandates defines its vision for the future of scores of Fresno County communities. A new Environmental Justice Element, for example, aims to shield disadvantaged communities from harmful industrial pollution.

"The (new) industrial standards are intended to protect communities ... regardless of their race, color, national origin," said Bernard Jimenez, deputy planning director.

And yet, Mariana Alvarenga, a policy advocate at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA), argues the county’s new General Plan fails to proactively address the needs of historically underserved rural communities.

The county is required by law (SB 244) to address systemic infrastructure inequality, yet LCJA maintains the county relies on outdated data and lacks clear accountability measures.

The local community group points to recently discovered well contamination of highly toxic chemicals in rural disadvantaged communities like Britten (uranium) and Lanare (benzene), which aren't reflected in the county's SB 244 analysis, highlighting deficiencies in their tracking of drinking water security. (The City of Fresno is taking proactive steps to address the county's shortcomings by working to integrate Britten into its safer water supply.)

In the lead-up to Tuesday's vote, LCJA urged the county to update well contamination data and strengthen language in the General Plan to ensure funding for rural infrastructure needs. They also asked the county to commit to dedicated staff who would find funding to address these existing deficits and mitigate worsening climate change impacts.

In the end, the county declined to make any of these requested changes. This clash underscores the tension between the county's focus on new development and the urgent needs of vulnerable communities in their jurisdiction.

"The county needs to focus on addressing needs...not planning for new development," said Alvarenga.

Esther Ramirez, a resident of the community of Cantua Creek who spoke to the supervisors on Tuesday, knows this struggle all too well.

The small community has water laced with loads of cancer-causing compounds, according county records.

“We need safe and affordable drinking water,” said Ramirez. “We're a small community that should have all the advantages a city or small town has.”

County responds to Attorney General oversight

Tuesday's vote also weighed in on a controversy surrounding a proposed 3,000-acre industrial park in south Fresno, bordering some of America's most polluted neighborhoods.

The project drew sharp criticism from California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who deemed the county's initial plan to earmark the Calwa and Malaga areas for the development "illegal" due to environmental justice concerns.

Emails obtained by Fresnoland reveal the county worked with the AG's office to revise its industrial plans starting in May 2022.

Removing Calwa and Malaga directly and developing new environmental justice policies, and adding a few policies for mitigation when potential pollution-producing land uses are proposed next to schools and homes, appears to have satisfied the Attorney General.

The Attorney General’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.

After the county made its changes, emails show, the AG’s office continued to meet with Fresno County in October 2022.

However the AG's office did not file additional public comments in 2023, when the General Plan was circulated for public review. The industrial park was still included in the general plan vote on Tuesday.

As development increases, Brandau pledges to be river watchdog

For two decades, Fresno County has touted ambitious plans to protect the San Joaquin and Kings Rivers and safeguard its valuable agricultural land.

Yet, the sweeping changes approved on Tuesday abandon key elements of those commitments, Fresnoland reported on Monday, setting the stage for a development push that critics warn could irrevocably harm the environment and erode the county's agricultural heritage.

The revised plan strips away crucial environmental protection programs, including safeguards for endangered species and riparian habitats. It also eliminates promised plans to enhance recreational access to the San Joaquin River and potentially hands over the plan for the Kings River's future to developers.

Policies promoting agricultural conservation have also been replaced with a vague "menu" of options for developers, mirroring the controversial and largely ineffective approach adopted by the City of Fresno.

In the wake of these changes, Brandau, who also serves on the San Joaquin River Conservancy, pledged to be an environmental watchdog on Tuesday.

Brandau voiced regret over past development along the San Joaquin. He promised to support buffer zones to ensure public access to the Kings River.

“Fresno built right up to the bluff of the (San Joaquin) river, and allowed very few areas that can be designated for the public to gain real access to the river,” Brandau said.

“If I could go back in time when we built along the San Joaquin River...we did some things wrong that I’m going to make sure we don’t do on the Kings River.”

But one of the county’s planners left mixed messages about river access.

In an interview with Fresnoland, the county’s top planner, Jimenez, would not explain why the county eliminated the Friant-Millerton Regional Plan, which prioritized expanding recreational amenities on the San Joaquin River.

Instead, Jimenez emphasized that both the county’s new plan and old plan have the same vision – how to make money in the Friant area.

“The Friant-Millerton Regional Plan was to look at tourism and in part to look at future growth,” he said. “There's no reference to river access.”

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