The 2035 general plan is returning to center stage at Fresno City Hall.
We’re looking in the near future at another round in an old fight – farmland preservation vs. greenbelt growth. Council Members Steve Brandau and Luis Chavez get credit for stirring things up.
To set the scene, the City Council in December 2014 approved the 2035 general plan. More than Fulton Corridor, more than Bus Rapid Transit, more than Recharge Fresno, the 2035 general plan was viewed by Mayor Ashley Swearengin as the signature policy achievement of her eight years as the city’s chief executive.
Many community activists would agree.
The plan was to end sprawl. The plan was to direct new growth to the city’s center. The plan was to heal the city’s racial, class and geographical divisions.
One of the plan’s chapters (or “elements,” as they’re called at City Hall) is titled “Resource Conservation and Resilience.”
One of the chapter’s implementing policies states: “Unincorporated Land in the Planning Area. Express opposition to residential and commercial development proposals in unincorporated areas within or adjacent to the Planning Area when these proposals would do any of the following:
· “Make it difficult or infeasible to implement the General Plan;
· “Contribute to the premature conversion of agricultural, open space, or grazing lands; or
· “Constitute a detriment to the management of resources and/or facilities important to the region (such as air quality, water quantity and quality, traffic circulation, and riparian habitat).”
The general plan here is referring mainly to Fresno’s sphere of influence, — unincorporated land on the city’s edge deemed suitable by government for annexation/growth at some point in the future.
It’s the next part of this implementing policy that is at the heart of the Brandau/Chavez agenda.
The Resource Conservation and Resilience chapter continues: “Farmland Preservation Program. In coordination with regional partners or independently, establish a Farmland Preservation Program. When Prime Farmland, Unique Farmland, or Farmland of Statewide Importance is converted to urban uses outside City limits, this program would require that the developer of such a project permanently protect an equal amount of similar farmland elsewhere through easement.”
This tiny paragraph may turn out to be the most controversial part of the immense 2035 general plan.
To give you one example, let’s say John Doe the Developer wants to build houses and stores on 40 acres of grapes in the city’s sphere of influence in Southeast Fresno. Doe is willing to jump through all the hoops to get the 40 acres annexed into the city.
Under the Farmland Preservation Program, Doe would have to make sure there’s another 40 acres of top-notch farmland somewhere in the area that is legally preserved pretty much forever as farmland.
Doe might have to buy those extra 40 acres. Or he might have to pay a farmer to encumber 40 acres in such a manner.
Doe might say to City Hall: The general plan’s Farmland Preservation Program jacks up the cost of development.
City Hall might say: Nonsense. Build high-density apartments on your 40 acres and you’ll make a profit. Better yet, leave all this farmland as is and build high-density apartments in inner-city Fresno.
Bottom line: Developers for the most part weren’t keen on the Farmland Preservation Program in December 2014, and they’re not keen on it now. Community activists, on the other hand, are keen on the Farmland Preservation Program.
But the rollout of the program appears to have been slow. Based on my chats with officials in one prominent local development company, lots of questions remain about the nature of the program.
Swearengin was termed out in January 2017. Lee Brand, who was friendly to economic growth in his eight years as District 6 council member, is now the mayor.
We jump from December 2014 to March 2, 2017. That’s when Council Members Brandau (who serves District 2 in Northwest Fresno) and Chavez (who serves District 5 in Southeast Fresno) brought a resolution to the council.
The resolution noted the council’s legal authority to initiate an amendment to the 2035 general plan. The resolution stated that the council “desires to initiate an amendment to the Fresno General Plan to remove the specific requirement for permanent easements from Policy RC-9-c….”
Policy RC-9-c is the Farmland Preservation Program paragraph stated above.
The Brandau/Chavez resolution then got down to business: “Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Council of the City of Fresno as follows: The Council, pursuant to Fresno Municipal Code Sections 15-4902-B and 15-5803-C, hereby initiates an amendment to Fresno General Plan Policy RC-9-c to remove the requirement that a developer of a project that converts Prime Farmland, Unique Farmland, or Farmland of Statewide Importance to non-agricultural uses permanently protect an equal amount of similar farmland elsewhere through easement.”
The Brandau/Chavez resolution passed 4-3. Brandau, Chavez, Clint Olivier and Garry Bredefeld voted yes. Oliver Baines, Esmeralda Soria and Paul Caprioglio voted no.
It appears that the Brandau/Chavez resolution was met with indifference by the Brand Administration.
Brandau used the “council member comments” period at the Oct. 26 council meeting to explore the fate of the resolution he co-authored.
Brandau addressed his comments to City Manager Wilma Quan-Schecter, sitting at the other end of the dais.
The resolution, Brandau reminded Quan-Schecter, “has to do with farmland mitigation, which is a conversation we’ve had multiple times in the City of Fresno. On March 2, by a majority of council vote, we passed a resolution to put that in effect. Inside the resolution were included timelines to make this happen. For instance, it (the resolution) was council-ordered on March 2. It was supposed to go to the Airport Commission 30 days later, on the 2nd of April. On the 2nd of May, it was supposed to go to the Planning Commission and return to council on June 2. And if those timelines were not met, we were supposed to get an update every 30 days until they were met. They absolutely were not met. So, here we are on Oct. 26, months and months and months away from a council resolution that was passed by a majority of this body. I take that real seriously. And I will say – this is not something that the mayor of Fresno can veto. And it’s not something that the former mayor of Fresno can veto. It was passed by this body. I would like an explanation why we haven’t done anything about that. City Manager, apparently that falls on you.”
“I appreciate you bringing this up,” Quan-Schecter said. “I wish I would have known you were going to bring this up before the meeting because I would have had an update for you. I will need to meet with our Development and Resource Management director (Jennifer Clark) and get back to you. We will get back to you within a few days.”
“I appreciate that,” Brandau said. “And I know much of this happened before you were city manager. But I know that you as city manager oversee all of these issues. It’s very serious when council can pass a resolution and it just gets put – in my thought – in a back file. Other projects in the city of Fresno move forward when this should take priority. I would like to see a quick response from the City Manager’s Office and from the Administration and from Planning. In many ways, and sometimes especially when it comes to planning, our city faces on this issue and other issues a tyranny by bureaucracy. This should have been already done. It should have been wrapped up and we should have already amended the general plan. So, I’m hoping we can move forward with this farmland mitigation issue and correct our general plan.”
“I will follow-up with staff,” Quan-Schecter said. “I appreciate your concern and will get back to you.”
“Thank you, Wilma,” Brandau said.
City Hall Communications Director Mark Standriff told me that Brandau and Quan-Schecter had a productive meeting on this issue on Tuesday. Standriff gave no details.