Focus on Fresno – Major May Wins

The San Joaquin Valley continues to figure prominently in ClimatePlan’s work; the last few weeks have been especially active. Below we highlight two major wins in Fresno resulting from months — even years — of effort by our Fresno allies! In both instances, we see the importance of investing in existing neighborhoods as a way to improve and ensure public and fiscal health take center stage.

Kings_River_Fresno_County_California-300x84.jpgFriant Ranch, a proposed 3,000-unit senior housing development six miles north of the city of Fresno, is Fresno County’s version of Cordova Hills, the Sacramento County development that has caused so much statewide consternation among SB375 proponents, especially following the unfortunate decision by a Sacramento Superior court judge to allow unmitigated air quality impacts to go forward in a flawed EIR. In contrast, in Fresno, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and Revive the San Joaquin successfully convinced a state appellate judge that, under CEQA, an EIR that fails to assess the air quality impacts of the project is, indeed, unacceptable! This is a significant win, not least because the importance of air quality was explicitly upheld in the judgement. And while the current decision is merely a delay, it signals a willingness to consider public health and environmental quality issues on par with the more mundane elements of environmental review.

Not only did our allies win in court, they also made good strides on the Fresno COG SCS. Ever since the Fresno COG selected its own uninspiring land use and transportation plan instead of the Community Equity Coalition’s (CEC) proposed land use scenario, the CEC has been working on multiple fronts to articulate the importance of investing in existing neighborhoods and communities and embed the major goals of their scenario into the RTP. These goals, which the CEC has doggedly shepherded through an ad-hoc COG committee, focus on embodying the notion that our neighborhoods determine our public and fiscal health. To that end, the CEC’s goals include:

  •  – ensuring that the SCS prioritizes existing communities over new towns,
  •  – creating a mechanism for identifying health needs and infrastructure gaps,
  •  – providing funding for under-resourced communities to apply for project funds to address these   gaps, and
  •  – approving a conservation policy to mitigate the loss of farming and working lands to development.

Since late last year, the CEC has been attending committee and COG meetings, always keen to hammer home the importance of these proposals.

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Images courtesy of Smart Growth America’s May 2014 report, “Dangerous by Design.”

Last Thursday, May 29, the CEC’s efforts paid off: staff made several recommendations to the COG board that are generally consistent with the CEC’s goals and go a long way towards prioritizing the needs of existing towns, neighborhoods, and residents. The CEC can now take credit for an entirely new sustainable planning and infrastructure grant program that prioritizes Fresno county’s most underserved neighborhoods’ efforts to build walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented infrastructure. COG staff also supported the creation of a needs assessment, but attempted to focus exclusively on transportation needs, in lieu of a comprehensive approach to addressing public health needs as the coalition proposed. Fortunately, the COG board expressed its desire to see health figure prominently in the needs assessment as well! And while the staff did not recommend the adoption of the CEC’s natural and working lands conservation policy, the COG board directed staff to form an ad-hoc committee process to continue to explore this policy and the CEC’s goals. All told, this is no small victory. While the CEC couldn’t outright affect the scenario, its attention to the financial and policy elements of the plan will shape the nature of the COG’s transportation investments, create a rich data source for understanding the region’s health and infrastructure needs, and help foster the expectation among residents and decision makers that fiscally responsible planning decisions and good transportation investments require a focus on existing neighborhoods and communities.

In an interesting bit of political theatre and a testament to the power of the CEC, the coalition’s recent organizing successfully fended off a major attack on the new grant program. A conservative-leaning COG member, County Supervisor Judith Case, would have limited the grant funding sources to new revenue sources only, despite the availability of existing revenue streams identified by COG staff. The CEC’s efforts to educate small town mayors about the benefits of the grant program resulted in their vociferous support for leaving the proposal intact. As such, it was approved via unanimous vote. As Leadership Counsel Co-Director Veronica Garibay noted, “It was refreshing to see them step up.” We look forward to helping the CEC continue to empower all Fresnans to hold their elected officials accountable, knowing full well that this major win is just the first step in implementing an SCS that improves quality of life for everyone in the region.

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