“No taxation – make that land-grab – without representation!”
That’s the rallying cry of officials at Fresno City Hall. And their latter-day George III is LAFCO – the Fresno County Local Agency Formation Commission.
And wouldn’t you know it – with the June 7 primary just days away, this City Hall vs. LAFCO fight has mayoral campaign shenanigans written all over it.
Things came to a head on Thursday when the City Council held a workshop on SEGA – the Southeast Growth Area. (Planning types are trying to change the acronym to SEDA – Southeast Development Area. I still prefer SEGA. Judging by their comments, so do veteran council members.)
Thursday’s workshop was stunningly complex. It cleared the air on nothing. At the same time, the workshop has to rank as one of the most interesting hour I’ve spent at City Hall.
We were dealing with the shadowy world where power really resides in Fresno and the county – land use.
To cut to the chase, Council Member Lee Brand at the end of the workshop directed City Attorney Doug Sloan to draft a resolution that the council would adopt at a future meeting.
The resolution would say two things.
First, it would outline the city’s beef with LAFCO over SEGA. More on that later. But in a nutshell, the city is steamed because LAFCO is threatening to take about 2,500 acres (four square miles) of land out of SEGA’s footprint despite City Hall’s objection.
Second, the resolution would formally ask locally-based state lawmakers to push special legislation through Sacramento. LAFCO is a county-wide agency run by five commissioners. City Hall wants a law that says there should be seven commissioners. One of the new commissioners must be from Fresno. The other must be from Clovis.
Again, more on that later.
All seven council members on Thursday were up in arms. So, too, was City Manager Bruce Rudd.
“You guys have clearly poked the 800-pound gorilla – or 800-pound canary,” Council President Paul Caprioglio said at the end of the workshop to LAFCO Executive Officer David Fey.
Eight-hundred-pound canary? Like I said, it was a workshop for the ages.
The SEGA idea has been kicking around City Hall in one way or another for decades.
Look at a map of Fresno (as city leaders and developers have been doing since the 19th century) and what do you see? You see the San Joaquin River to the north and northwest. Madera County is on the other side. You see vast stretches of farmland to the west and southwest (hot and dusty if there’s no irrigation water). You see Fowler, Selma, Kingsburg, Sanger and Reedley to the southeast and east.
Fresno is the “capital” of the central San Joaquin Valley. Fresno grows and grows. But how, and in which directions?
You know the answer as well as I do. We expanded at break-neck speed. Sprawl, if you will (not my preferred term). Mostly we went north. Then the river and the explosive growth of Clovis stopped us in that direction.
To grow like we did, we had to keep annexing unincorporated land. That’s where LAFCO comes in. The way it usually works is rural land on the city’s edge is officially deemed to be in the city’s sphere of influence (SOI). When the city’s inevitable pattern of growth puts enough pressure on a portion of the SOI, then that chunk of land is annexed. That’s how a train stop called Fresno became the region’s 800-pound gorilla.
LAFCO must give its blessing for a city to expand the scope of its SOI. LAFCO also must give its blessing to annexations.
Fresno in the last 30 years has expanded in fits and starts on the west side of Highway 99. City Hall would love to see more growth in West Fresno, but that day always seems to lie just over the horizon. Like I said, the river and Clovis have largely stopped movement to the north and northeast.
The southeast – SEGA – is the new Promised Land.
Mayor Alan Autry (2001-2009) recognized as much. Pretty soon two things happened. City Hall got the ball rolling with LAFCO to dramatically expand Fresno’s SOI to the southeast. And City Hall got the ball rolling to plan (in detail) what would happen within SEGA.
On that first front, Fresno and LAFCO entered into a deal (called a Memorandum of Understanding) in 2003. This MOU divided SEGA into four portions. Certain conditions had to be met before annexation and development could occur.
Then, in 2006, LAFCO through an official resolution agreed to an expansion of Fresno’s SOI to the southeast. Here, too, specific conditions had to be met before LAFCO would approve actually annexation of SEGA.
One of those conditions was creation by City Hall of a specific plan for SEGA.
On that second front – what would actually happen in SEGA – City Hall hired a prestigious Northern California firm to come up with nifty plans for SEGA’s 8,500 acres (about 13 square miles). This was going to be a new city within a city. Everything would be modern and beautiful.
And SEGA, when built out, would enable Fresno to take another big growth step toward Sanger (which was doing a pretty good job of taking big growth steps toward Fresno).
Everyone – Fresno City Hall, LAFCO’s five commissioners, developers, planners – was happy.
Then came 2009. Ashley Swearengin succeeded Autry as mayor. Andreas Borgeas succeeded Brian Calhoun as District 2 (northwest Fresno) council member. Lee Brand succeeded Jerry Duncan as District 6 (northeast Fresno) council member.
Swearengin, with the support of a whole army of community activists, said Fresno needs to curtail so-called “edge” growth. She said Fresno needs to concentrate on fixing things in the inner-city. By 2015, she had pushed through a new general plan and development code designed to do just that.
Borgeas and Brand came to City Hall with high ambitions of their own. One of them was to put a stop to what they saw as the utopian dreams of SEGA. On top of that, the city was mired in a financial crisis. Borgeas and Brand saw the SEGA planning process as an unnecessary drain on taxpayer funds.
In 2011, Borgeas and Brand headed a council subcommittee whose public hearings essentially put a stop to the SEGA planning process.
That, in itself, seemed to be no big deal. City Hall’s previous deals with LAFCO over SEGA’s sphere of influence gave city officials 20 to 25 years to meet all the conditions (i.e. write a specific plan). SEGA was slowed, but not stopped.
Developers with interests in SEGA weren’t pleased, though.
Things soon shifted again.
Swearengin by 2015 was nearing the end of her second (and last) term as mayor. She had shifted her primary focus from edge growth to fighting residential blight in older neighborhoods. The media were obsessed with blight, as well.
Developers were quietly but diligently attempting to massage the new general plan to their liking.
Borgeas was gone from City Hall. He was now a county supervisor.
Brand was preparing for a mayoral run in 2016.
And over there at LAFCO, one of its commissioners – Henry R. Perea, a supervisor himself and former Fresno City Council member – was preparing for a mayoral run, as well.
The mayor’s race figured to ultimately be Brand vs. Perea in November 2016.
Developers, through their campaign contributions, have a way of influencing a mayoral candidate’s views on growth.
And mayoral candidates, always trying to think three or four steps ahead, like to put their opponents on the defensive.
Here’s where SEGA and Thursday’s workshop come in.
As LAFCO Executive Officer Fey explained in an April 18 letter to Council President Caprioglio, LAFCO commissioners in late 2015 created a subcommittee. The subcommittee’s charge was to review any and all issues regarding Fresno’s sphere of influence (never mind that that’s the entire commission’s charge, as well).
The subcommittee decided the commission as a whole should consider removing 2,560 acres from the SEGA sphere of influence.
LAFCO was going to make a final decision on this issue on April 13, Fey said. Instead, the commission decided to postpone its vote until Fey had met with the council.
Perea is on the subcommittee.
LAFCO is slated to decide whether to pull the trigger on the SEGA land-grab in July, a month after the June primary, four months before the November general election.
So, Fey went to the Council Chamber on Thursday. His job, in essence, was to politely deliver a stunning message to city officials: LAFCO is going to publicly take your land, and the commissioners expect you to smile through it all.
That’s what Caproglio meant by a “poking.”
The give-and-take between Fey and city officials was all over the place.
It seemed to me that city officials never really zeroed in on the fundamental weakness of LAFCO’s position.
LAFCO pitched its current interest in SAGA as merely a proper concern about City Hall’s progress (or lack of it) on fulfilling the city’s part of the SOI deal from 2006. Specifically, City Hall promised to draft a specific plan for SEGA, and that specific plan isn’t close to being started.
I kept thinking: So what? The 2006 SOI deal gave City Hall 20 to 25 years to get things done. We’re only 10 years into those 20 to 25 years.
I thought: Maybe there’s a legally-binding footnote to the 2006 resolution that gives LAFCO authority to unilaterally remove all or a portion of SEGA’s 8,500 acres from Fresno’s SOI if City Hall, 10 years into a 20-25-year deal, is deemed by a simple vote of LAFCO commissioners to be too slow in fulfilling its responsibilities.
No, Fey told me after the workshop, the 2006 MOU doesn’t contain such enabling language.
City officials at the workshop had to have known that. Why didn’t they simply tell Fey to “jump in a lake; we’ll see you in court”?
Instead, there was endless chatter revolving around the timeless war between the City of Fresno and the County of Fresno, with smaller Fresno County cities thrown in for good measure.
(As a sidenote, a brief exchange between Fey and city officials dealt with the proper metaphor to explain the immense influence of Fresno in a largely rural county. Everyone gets the notion of an “800-pound gorilla.” But Fey said Fresno at some point in the distant past was described as the “800-pound canary in a coalmine shaft.” The witty Caprioglio, to his credit, couldn’t let that image pass without comment.)
In the end, each of the seven council members said all 8,500 acres must stay in Fresno’s sphere of influence. Land is everything to a political entity, be it a nation or an incorporated city. City officials would be violating their oath to protect Fresno’s interests if they casually let LAFCO compromise the city’s sovereignty.
Perea knows this. He was a powerful figure at City Hall 15 years ago when the SEGA issue was picking up steam. He wouldn’t want to be mayor of a city that was satisfied to be routinely slapped around by a couple of supervisors and a few small-town hotheads sitting on LAFCO’s board.
My guess is Perea cooked up this 2,500-acre SEGA issue right before the primary to rattle the cage of Brand (primarily) and Swearengin (secondarily). Perhaps Perea wanted to put Brand in a position of alleged hypocrisy – beating up on SEGA in 2011, then rushing to SEGA’s defense in 2016.
Perhaps Perea wants to use those 2,500 acres as a bargaining chip at LAFCO should he be elected mayor – maybe take 2,500 acres out of SEGA and move it somewhere else in Fresno’s sphere of influence, such as the San Joaquin River Corridor on the way to Friant. That way, there would be no harm/no foul to Fresno’s SOI and sovereignty.
I’m just guessing.
And you know what? If that is Perea’s thinking, it might work.
Then again, it might not. Brand from the dais said he smells politics at the heart of LAFCO’s threats. Brand said the city and county are suffering from a “broken relationship.”
The final irony is that Perea’s LAFCO tactics may so anger city officials that he ends up getting a strategic victory for free.
There are five LAFCO commissioners. Two always come from the county Board of Supervisors. Two are chosen among the county’s mayors. There are 15 incorporated cities in the counties. The current LAFCO board has the mayors of Mendota and Fowler (total population – less than 18,000).
These four then get together and select a fifth commissioner from the general public.
Fey said Fresno hasn’t been on LAFCO board in 20 to 25 years. Fresno (including its county islands) and Clovis hold about two-thirds of Fresno County’s 975,000 people.
The council on Thursday seemed serious about seeking special legislation to expand the LAFCO board with permanent seats for Fresno and Clovis.
Council Member Esmeralda Soria said the city shouldn’t wait for a resolution. She said city officials immediately after the workshop should pick up the phone and call their Sacramento legislators.
The new mayor could be Brand, Perea, H. Spees or Doug Vagim.
No doubt each would love to take office with a guaranteed seat on the LAFCO board already in hand.