The connection in people's minds between air pollution and urban development is getting stronger in Fresno.
This summer, the City of Fresno settled a lawsuit filed by clean air advocates over the city's general plan. The city agreed to take a number of steps to encourage development that is less automobile-dependent than past projects, and the city committed $1 million to the effort.
The settlement requires that the city collect information on development, transportation and air quality, and then make planning decisions using that information, said Patience Milrod, the Fresno attorney who represented a collection of medical professionals who filed the lawsuit.
"At this point, our general plan is a data-free document on questions related to air quality and transportation. It doesn't in any way marry those two," Milrod said. The city's commitment in the settlement, she said, "is not going to fix everything, but it's long overdue."
Fresno Development Department Director Nick Yovino did not characterize his general plan as "data free." For him, the settlement is only the next step in a major growth policy shift. The general plan, which the City Council adopted in November 2002 after years of debate and one major restart, places 80% of the city's growth through 2025 within the existing sphere of influence (see CP&DR Local Watch
, September 2000). The plan provides for only one significant outward growth area, southeast of the city. The plan emphasizes infill development, new mixed-use centers, and vertical growth along Highway 41 through the heart of the city.
"The settlement, for us, is to follow through with the commitment we made in November," when the general plan was adopted, Yovino said. The city began setting aside money for general plan implementation two years ago, and the settlement ensures the money gets spent as promised, he said.
"We've always had good plans. The problem has been implementing the plans," Yovino said.
The lawsuit was filed in December 2002 by a group called Medical Advocates for Healthy Air (MAHA). The lawsuit contended the general plan "pays only lip service to addressing this enormous and pervasive problem [of air quality], principally by listing certain policies and goals which are then left without identified implementation strategies, and without funding." Furthermore, the environmental impact report for the plan "failed to provide sufficient information to compare the project [the general plan] with a reasonable choice of alternatives."
The point of the lawsuit was to get the city to investigate transportation options other than private automobiles. "Maybe some of the alternatives are too expensive, but we don't know the cost because it wasn't analyzed," Dr. David Pepper, a member of MAHA, told the Fresno Bee
when the lawsuit was filed.
The lawsuit did not exactly receive a friendly reception at City Hall, but a number of city officials share the same goal as the litigants: Plan for the type of growth that gets people out of their cars. Thus, settlement talks began almost immediately.
The basis for the settlement is the "growth response study" (GRS) project being funded by Caltrans. Fresno is a demonstration city for the GRS initiative, which is supposed to generate regional traffic, transportation, land use and resource allocation data, models and methodologies. The city agreed to participate fully in the GPS, which is scheduled for completion in July 2004. The city further agreed to use the tools the project identifies for six tasks:
• Determining boundaries and definitions of activity centers and nodes
• Establishing parameters for locating transit stations within each activity center and node
• Defining the system of transit connections
• Drafting zoning ordinance amendments that define and implement the mixed-use zoning districts.
• Drafting a southeast growth area plan.
• Drafting a specific plan for the Highway 41 mid-rise and high-rise corridor.
The city also agreed to put $1 million toward general plan implementation.
Milrod and other clean air advocates contend that the city has never had the political will to pursue city-centered development. She believes there is an untapped market in Fresno for urban, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use developments.
The city's top planner seems to agree. One of his big priorities in implementing the general plan is a complete overhaul of the city's 43-year-old zoning code. The code is oriented toward the suburban-style development that has characterized Fresno and the surrounding areas for decades, Yovino said, and the code actually blocks some of the densities and mixed uses that the new general plan calls for. Those densities and mixed-use neighborhoods are part of the strategy for reducing automobile dependence.
The zoning code overhaul will probably take two to three years. "It will affect nearly every parcel in Fresno and probably will require an EIR," Yovino said.
Yovino said there is no doubt that people are making a connection between urban development and Fresno's air pollution, which has ranked fourth or fifth worst in the nation for several years.
Milrod believes the lawsuit got the city's attention because medical professionals filed it. Decision-makers and the public listen when doctors and respiratory therapists say that air pollution is a major reason that one in six Fresno children has asthma and that asthma hospitalizes 12,000 people annually in the San Joaquin Valley.
"It's finally visible to the naked eye, which the mountains no longer are," Milrod said. "What that translates to in the form of individual choices — that's an educational process."
An unrelated lawsuit was filed in July over an air pollution control plan adopted this year by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and approved by the state Air Resources Control Board. Environmentalists and public health advocates contend the plan will not remove as much dust and soot from the air as the plan promises.
Central Valley air pollution was also a topic of much controversy in the Legislature, which passed several bills addressing the issue (see front page story).
Patience Milrod, Medical Advocates for Healthy Air attorney, (442) 3111.
Nick Yovino, City of Fresno Development Department director, (559) 621-8003.
Fresno general plan: www.fresno.gov/development/general_plan/default.asp.