The Friends of Calwa group holds a community meeting to discuss industrial development planned for their neighborhood in Southeast Fresno. They say they have enough industrial operations there. Photo contributed

published on May 4, 2022 - 2:28 PM
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A letter from the state’s top lawyer warning Fresno County about industrial development plans comes as officials still don’t know what the 3,000-acre project would look like.

It’s a project neighbors say they don’t want at all, favoring instead retail grocery, housing and health care. Industrial development proponents say these things aren’t mutually exclusive. But for planners, coming up with a balance that meets the needs of a neighborhood, a county and an attorney general means traversing uncharted waters.


Need is there

The letter from California Attorney General Rob Bonta discusses plans from the County to bring 3,000 acres of shovel-ready industrial land to Calwa and Malaga in Southeast Fresno.

The industrial park would be part of the General Plan being submitted to County officials.

Developers have long lamented the lack of industrial land that meets their needs.

“We are essentially fully leased, no space over 50,000 square feet,” said Ethan Smith, senior vice president with Fresno real estate brokerage Newmark Pearson Commercial.

Companies are looking for that kind of warehouse and distribution space.

Ace Hardware and Auto Zone announced multi-million dollar projects in Chowchilla and Visalia bringing hundreds of jobs to those areas.

Many of these companies are looking at Fresno, but the challenges to develop “are a material impediment,” Smith said.

Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig said there aren’t enough shovel-ready sites for expansion.


It’s about jobs

He said elected officials regularly hold community meetings and overwhelmingly, what he hears are people wanting high-paying jobs.

Fresno County consistently ranks higher than the state and national unemployment averages.

One metric researchers use is the number of jobs per rooftop, Magsig said, with 1.25-1.5 jobs per household being a healthy balance. While the City of Fresno meets that standard, the other 14 cities in the County don’t, Magsig said.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data for Fresno County show that the number of industrial companies associated with truck transportation has risen 98% from Q3 2017 to Q3 2021. There were 881 establishments in fall 2021 compared to 443 in the same time period of 2017.

Those employers provided 6,951 jobs in Q3 2021 compared to 5,240 in Q3 2017. Average weekly wages rose 12.5% in the four-year span, with workers earning $1,044 a week compared to $928.

These jobs rank higher in net income compared to other entry-level jobs.

Jobs in the trade, transportation and utilities sector — which includes retail and more — averaged $951 in weekly pay in 2021.

Jobs in leisure and hospitality averaged $481 in weekly pay.

“More industrial sites zoned gives us greater opportunity to expand existing businesses and bring new businesses here as well,” Magsig said.


At what cost?

Community groups, however, say that there is enough industrial development in communities with high poverty rates already burdened with environmental impacts.

“The community doesn’t want any more industrial here in the Calwa area,” said Laura Moreno, executive director of Friends of Calwa, a community group.

It was members of Friends of Calwa who penned a letter to Bonta asking for him to get involved.

“We’ve dealt with the County and the City and they haven’t done anything so we’re reaching out to the Attorney General so hopefully he’ll be able to help us,” Moreno said.

What community members do want are more grocery stores, health care clinics, parks and low-income housing.

The City of Fresno did announce this month a new health clinic to be built in Malaga by United Health Centers. The plan is to open by the end of 2023, according to the Fresno Bee.

But Moreno said between the railroad, E & J Gallo Winery, Donaghy Sales and the new Amazon, “we’re pretty much surrounded.”

“Nothing is benefitting our community,” Moreno said.

Bonta’s office had written the letter to the Fresno County Department of Public Works and Planning saying that proposals in the General Plan encouraging new and expanded industrial sites near Calwa and Malaga run in opposition to SB 1000, which was created to protect disadvantaged communities from discriminatory planning policies.

“This policy appears inconsistent with race discrimination in housing laws, the County’s mandatory duty to affirmatively further fair housing, and the air district’s community emissions reduction plan,” the letter stated. It also noted “the County has failed to enact climate adaptation and resiliency strategies.”

Moreno said many community members suffer from asthma and other health problems that trucks involved with industrial development would exacerbate.

Malaga and Calwa were designated amongst the “highest priority locations” for air monitoring standards under state law AB 617.


Getting it in early

What surprised Magsig was how early in the process the letter came. The industrial park is years out and an environmental review has not yet been done. Magsig said it’s hard to comment on the plan when impacts have not yet been studied.

In summer 2021, the board directed staff to begin looking at the feasibility of the industrial park.

A press contact with Bonta’s office wrote that they wanted to submit their comments in time to inform the County’s environmental analysis and any necessary revision to its General Plan.

“The Bureau of Environmental Justice regularly submits comment letters to cities and counties to promote SB 1000 compliance in their general plan,” the email stated.

A letter regarding industrial development was written to officials in Tulare County in June 2020.

Planners with Tulare County opted to draft an environmental justice element directly into their general plan.

In response to the action, staff with the Attorney General’s office offered their help in drafting a response.

“The Attorney General’s Bureau of Environmental Justice would like to serve as a resource for Tulare County as it updates its General Plan during this difficult time and throughout the drafting process,” the letter stated.

Planners for Tulare County did not respond by press time.


Learning curve

Environmental justice policies are still relatively new, said Bernard Jimenez, planning and resource management officer for Fresno County. Jimenez manages the team drafting the general plan.

They have been working on the plan off and on for a number of years, he said, with “a number of starts and stops.”

The hope is to have the public hearing process by the end of the year.

What they’ve been looking at since studying the feasibility of the industrial park is not only the utilities, transportation and infrastructure needs, but also balancing policies that promote economic growth while also protecting disadvantaged communities, Jimenez said.

The letter from Bonta did not oppose industrial zoning outright.

“We do not have a general objection to the portion of the policy regarding locating new industrial sites in the Golden State Industrial Corridor,” the letter stated. It added that specific developments may raise concerns if they increase pollution.

“The County should evaluate all proposed developments to determine whether they comply with the law,” the letter said.

The problem is there are no models to fall back on in terms of what environmentally compliant industrial zoning looks like, said Jimenez.

“That’s something that would have been ideal to receive from the State Attorney General’s office as maybe some examples from other jurisdictions,” Jimenez said.

Areas in Malaga and Calwa have access to railroads and freeways, making it a prime location.

One strategy that can be implemented is separation between corridors.

In a separate interview, Lee Ann Eager, CEO of the Fresno Economic Development Corp., said one solution might be buffering industrial from residential using retail commercial zoning.

“By and large, I think overwhelmingly, the residents of Fresno County want better, high-paying jobs,” Magsig said. “And there is a way to have both industrial land as well as residential in close proximity to one another as long as the impacts can be mitigated.”

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