Written by The Business Journal Staff
At their regular weekly meeting, supervisors reviewed the Friant Corridor Land Use Feasibility Study, a document that its critics claimed could foreshadow increased urban development in northeast Fresno County — and the county planning commission had rejected not once but twice.
A dozen area developers and landowners paid for the $120,000, 377-page study, which was produced by Visalia-based Quad Knopf.
Called a “basic opportunity and constraints study,” the document identified “only approximately 301 acres, or 6 percent,” of the overall 5,346-acre study area as “possible opportunity areas of limited recreation and supportive commercial and retail uses.”
Before this week’s board meeting, Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who led the charge to OK the study when he chaired the board in May 2013, said, “There’s a lot of discussion right now about urban sprawl. We have several thousand building permits already in play in different stages just north” of the study area. “Back when we commissioned the study, I thought it was time to do a deeper dive and try to determine where we should and shouldn’t develop in that area.”
But after hearing a procession of speakers criticize the feasibility study as “faulty,” “limited,” and “incomplete,” supervisors decided neither to accept nor reject the controversial document. Instead they chose the least inflammatory option, voting 5-0 to “set the study aside” after hearing County Counsel Dan Cederborg explain there were “no legal implications” attached to making that decision.
Located between Fresno’s northern city limits and the town of Friant in both Supervisors Andreas Borgeas’ and Debbie Poochigian’s districts, the still mostly rural area encompasses San Joaquin River bottom land and the adjacent hills along Friant Road, which has become an increasingly busy travel corridor under growing pressure to urbanize.
“This study was not intended to be a land use plan. This was not a project,” said Poochigian, who defended the board’s earlier decision to green light the process.
“This was just a study,” Poochigian said. “I think we got some good use out of it.”
But Supervisor Brian Pacheco pointed out that his predecessor on the board, Phil Larsen, had specifically requested the feasibility study include a discussion of available water resources. “But there was absolutely no mention of water in this report,” Pacheco said.
More than two dozen representatives from several community groups as well as a number of county residents attended Tuesday’s meeting, urging supervisors to reject the study.
“That corridor is a jewel and should be preserved,” said one speaker.
“We don’t want any hotels and motels and restaurants between the bluffs,” said another. “It seems like the whole focus of this study is ‘Where can developers get their foot in the door?’”
Prior to this week’s discussion by supervisors, Fresno officials as well as those with the Fresno Irrigation District, San Joaquin River Parkway & Conservation Trust, Fresno Audubon Society and Sequoia Riverlands Trust had all expressed concerns related to the study — with most of them pointing out that it did not contain any discussion regarding the impact of future development on the available water supply.
Opponents of the study also said it did not produce any new information that was not already available in other public land use documents.
In a letter written to supervisors in advance of the meeting, one Fresno resident, Betty Cornelisen called the study “deeply flawed” and said it failed to address “all the environmental concerns of the area surrounding the San Joaquin River.
“The area is zoned Agriculture and should remain that way to protect the river,” Cornelisen said.
Kaylon Hammond, policy coordinator for the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, told supervisors the feasibility study “is at odds, not just with state and regional planning priorities, but with the principles agreed upon by Fresno County.”
While saying that some elements in the study could be “useful,” Borgeas added that the blistering comments he had received from some of his constituents regarding the county’s possible adoption of the study had given him “heart burn.” He suggested further debate about potential development of the Friant Corridor take place during the county’s upcoming General Plan discussions.