Fresno, the largest city in the Central Valley, is going to keep growing. The question is, in which direction?
City leaders who are dealing with issues of leapfrog development, declining neighborhoods and strained city services, would like to keep growth inside city limits as infill projects – as the city's recently adopted general plan suggests.
But local counties, including Fresno and Madera, are happy to encourage some of that overflow growth as it moves beyond the affluent north side of Fresno. Both counties have many developments planned for the region near the San Joaquin River, which is the border between the two counties. This has led to years of environmental litigation between the large city and the counties.
Fresno recently settled a lawsuit against Madera County over the large Tesero Viejo planned community. But the city is still involved in other litigation, and is appealing a recent decision against Fresno County's plans to allow 2,500 homes at Friant Ranch.
Amidst the litigation, the city and its two county adversaries recently met with a mediator from the state's Strategic Growth Council to discuss some of the longstanding issues. The meeting was required in the settlement of Fresno's lawsuit against over Tesero Viejo, and Fresno County was also invited.
"We started talking about ways to talk about planning from a regional perspective," said Jennifer Clark, Fresno' new planning director. The next step, she said, is "the state will participate at whatever level we're interested in."
"We are at a fairly early stage of discussions and anticipate some additional meetings," said state Office of Planning and Research director Ken Alex via email. "We are helping the parties explore the issues, the possibilities of more regional planning and development, and various connected issues of sprawl, agricultural land preservation, transit-oriented development, and restoration of downtown Fresno."
Norman Allinder, planning director for Madera County, said the planning directors plan to meet again.
Clark said regional cooperation has been hindered in the past by the size of the region. She contrasted the Fresno area with Houston and Galveston, Texas, where the regional council of government covers 11 counties in an 8,500-square-mile region. Fresno County alone, in contrast, is 9,000 square miles, and has its own council of government.
"I think regional collaboration is a much better model than litigation," she said.
That sentiment is not far from Allinder's view. "My outcome, lofty or not, is that they not sue us," he said.
Allinder said Madera County, with 164,000 residents, wants some of the amenities that exist in Fresno, including more shopping.
"They've always acted as if they're the only ones who should have urban development," he said. "And all the surrounding communities stand by while they develop their economy while we don't develop our own."
It's a view shared by Alan Weaver, Fresno County's planning director.
"There are 14 other cities (in the county) that all have the need to grow and be self-sustaining as well," he said.
Allinder says that Madera County wants the same kind of smart growth in its county that is being championed in Fresno. He points to plans for the Rio Mesa area, which encompass many of the proposed developments in the south county. "The Rio Mesa plan of 1995 embodied the principles of smart growth prior to that term being common," he said.
Rio Mesa could be home to 250,000 people, according to the Fresno Bee. Among the projects are Tesero Viejo, a proposed 5,200 home development and Gunner Ranch West, a proposed 2,800 unit development. There are supposed to be jobs and retail at both locations so residents won't have to drive far.
But critics of the project, such as Fresno land use attorney Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, contend that until those developments are built out, many of the residents will commute into Fresno, adding to traffic and air pollution difficulties in a region that already has the worst air quality in the nation.
Fresno sued over Tesero Viejo, and settled the matter in May after an agreement was reached for the city to receive a $1,600 per home impact fee. But Hedgpeth-Harris is continuing with litigation over that project on behalf of environmental groups such as the Coalition for Clean Air. She said in total, 80,000 new housing units are proposed for Madera County.
Approval of Gunner Ranch West, meanwhile, has been held up by the Madera County Board of Supervisors because the developers have failed to identify a water source. Critics of the project include the Madera County Farm Bureau, which has sued the county over development and water issues in the past.
This time, though, the county seems to be paying more attention to water, said Anja Radabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "We're hopeful,"she said. "One of the more encouraging things we're noting is the county supervisors are much more cognizant of the water situation that they were ten years ago."
Attorney Hedgpeth-Harris agrees, saying Madera County is updating their water management plans. "The county of Madera has done a lot more in terms of gathering information,"she said.
Still unresolved in the latest talks is a separate suit between Fresno and Madera County over El Paseo, a project along Highway 99 in Fresno. Madera officials sued in June to stop the 75-acre commercial project, according to the Fresno Bee.
In Fresno County, officials are looking at more development near Millerton Lake and other northern sections. Plans for Millerton New Town date from 1984, Weaver said. The Fresno County Planning Director said that new development is compliant with SB 375, which seeks to reduce global warming.
"We go through the CEQA process, " he said. "If we fall short, we mitigate. It's no different than development that would occur in the city of Fresno."
Attorney Hedgpeth-Harris described Fresno itself as "the epitome of sprawl," but said a new general plan being written there is attempting to change that direction. "The whole idea is to end sprawl," she said.
Hedgpeth-Harris said the cities and the counties are both looking for new tax revenue from development, money that has been taken away by the state and by Proposition 13.
She summed up the problem the city faces:"it's difficult to do the infill development ..if the tax base is leaving to go into the county."
Anja Radabaugh, Executive Director, Madera County Farm Bureau, (559) 674-8871
Norm Allinder, Madera County Planning Director, (559)675-7821
Sara Hedgpeth-Harris, attorney, (559) 233-0907
Jennifer Clark, Director of Fresno Development and Resource Management, (559)621-8003
Alan Weaver, Director of Fresno County department of Public Works and Planning, (559)600-4078
Ken Alex, Director, Governor's Office of Planning and Research (916)322-2318