The land requested for rezone is 92 acres on 15 parcels at South Elm and East Vine Avenues near Highway 41. Image via City of Fresno
Written by Edward Smith
The Fresno Planning Commission Wednesday evening put on hold a hearing to rezone land in Southwest Fresno — a move residents say would jeopardize their health and livelihoods.
Business owners requesting the rezone say failure to do so would hinder the future of their enterprises.
The land in question is 92 acres on 15 parcels at South Elm and East Vine avenues near Highway 41.
OUT OF ZONE
Property owners applied for a rezone after the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan was approved in 2017, changing the zoning of their existing footprint from light industrial to neighborhood mixed use, said Joseph Kalpakoff, president of Mid Valley Disposal. Mid Valley Disposal serves as a processor for recycling in Fresno as well as a transfer station for the city’s waste.
Kalpakoff said banks are hesitant to make loans to businesses operating out of the proper zoning, preventing them from doing things such as tenant improvements, which for industrial companies, can be essential. The recycling operations at Mid Valley are capital intensive projects, said Kalpakoff. California energy and waste policies change often and companies like his have to keep up with technology, he added.
“To invest in new technology takes capital,” said Kalpakoff. “It could be electrification of loaders, new sorting equipment, optical sorters, heavy capital machinery that we use to process and sort the City of Fresno’s recyclables. To do that, we need to borrow money from the bank.” Kalpakoff says theirs is an industry under heavy regulation and they need to upgrade equipment every few years to stay in compliance.
The banks that provide those loans look at the property for collateral. Companies already there can operate using conditional use permits. If they were to sell their properties, they’re not zoned for those uses anymore. This changes the value of the property and how banks might assess it, he said.
The Southwest Specific Plan has outlined a need for retail and pollution reduction. Ivanka Saunders with the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, a legal advocacy group, said grocery stores are in dire need in Southwest Fresno. The existing grocery stores have long lines, she says. The need for nearby retail is largely what drove the rezone from light industrial to neighborhood mixed use, according to the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan.
But Kalpakoff says they are at 100% capacity and have been for some time. They aren’t making this proposal to expand, only to make their operation more efficient and compliant with changing regulation, he said.
Advocacy groups claim that the requested rezone does not comply with the vision outlined in the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan.
Saunders penned a letter to the City of Fresno against the rezone that the area has been neglected and intentionally used “as [the City’s] dumping grounds for any type of land that is not appropriate for its segregated northern Fresno communities, where affluent Caucasian citizens are the primary demographic.”
Saunders also cited a study by CalEnviroScreen, a state agency that makes health assessments, that ranked Southwest Fresno among the top 1% of city Census tracts with the most polluted areas in the state.
“This city’s only priority continues to focus on the economic goals by way of industrial growth rather than a comprehensive approach balancing qualify jobs with upward mobility and creating healthy complete communities,” Saunders wrote.
THE PROPOSED COMPROMISE
Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias said an overlay — making two or more zoning designations for the same area — would give both residential and industrial growth by-right development. He said community members don’t want heavy industry in the area, but recognized that that’s not what business owners want either.
“From my perspective, the applicants and the community have legitimate concerns,” Arias said. “My job is to make sure we find a happy medium. The businesses can continue to operate. The community has made it clear that they don’t mind the businesses operating into perpetuity.”
Kalpakoff said an overlay might work, but “the devil is in the details.” If the overlay expires once a business stops operating, then the same problem exists and banks might still view it as out of compliance.
Saunders says they’ve done enough negotiating.
“The community does not want to see overlay,” Saunders said. “They feel it would be a step backward from the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan.”
Changing the zoning to commercial mixed use and allowing the businesses to continue to operate was the compromise in creating the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan, she said.
She said there are agreements with the City that can be reached as proof for allowing uses that a lender would view favorably.
Oftentimes those administrative agreements are only with the business owner and not with the lending institution. When those agreements expire, the banks can’t guarantee the land can continue to be used as it was.
“If you can’t get funding to expand, maybe you should look elsewhere,” Saunders said.
One of the concerns has been around pollution that Saunders said has been historically placed in communities of color.
Kalpakoff says one of the main functions of Mid Valley Disposal is to reduce pollution by taking garbage trucks off the road. The purpose of the transfer station is to reduce the number of trucks by consolidating waste.
Kalpakoff says 90% of the fleet that goes through Mid Valley run on natural gas.
Having Mid Valley Disposal located in the city limits keeps utility rates down as well, Kalpakoff said.
Business owners don’t want to intensify industry there, Kalpakoff said, but rather they just want the land to be zoned the way it was when they purchased it.
“There’s definitely going to be impact in the future when we’re required to improve based on regulations and we can’t,” said Kalpakoff. “What do you do then?”
In the end, Planning Commission Chair Kathy Bray asked for both parties to come up with a solution by the time of the next commission meeting.