It has been a stench over west Fresno for more than six decades. A meat rendering plant there produces a stink like no other, residents say. Now that that plant likely is moving about 5 miles west.
If the deal is approved, it would also bring an end to a five-year legal odyssey involving residents, the city and the plant’s owners, Darling International. The proposed site is next to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
The deal will head to the Fresno City Council for a vote on Thursday (Oct. 26) at 4:30 p.m. Darling will receive 20 acres from the city at the southwest corner of Jensen and Cornelia avenues. It also gets an option to purchase an adjacent 20 acres for $22,000 an acre (or $440,000 total). The city would be responsible for obtaining the land entitlements and environmental clearances.
The city will also pay for a PG&E gas line, a methane gas line, a nonpotable water supply line, and a new water well. In addition, it will be on the hook for a host of tax and permitting incentives. These include real estate and property tax rebates for 30 years, sales tax rebates for equipment purchases, and waiving city fees to construct the new site and expedite permits.
In exchange, the plant would close at 795 W. Belgravia (near Fruit and Church avenues) within six months of the new site being operational. The company will retain the land, but dismantle the equipment and remove the silo within a year. Darling will also be required to remove all known human health risks.
No one from the city’s planning department would answer GV Wire’s questions on how much the Darling deal would cost taxpayers. Darling said that the value of the incentives package has not been determined.
In 2012, Concerned Citizens for West Fresno sued the city and Darling. The city was dismissed a year later. The parties, including the city, entered into negotiations in 2014 under mediator Lee Jacobson. They also agreed to delay any trial until at least 2019 to work things out.
“It’s negatively impacted the community as anybody can imagine,” Ashley Werner, an attorney representing the plaintiffs said. “I’ve talked to many, many residents who just simply never open their windows, don’t take their kids to play in the park (and) who reduce their time outside in general because the odors are so horrendous.”
The Fresno Bee reported Wednesday that Darling representatives have told the city construction could take up to two years, meaning the plant could open in late 2019 or in 2020.
According to the lawsuit, the Sierra Meat Co. first applied for a permit to run a slaughterhouse and rendering facility in 1947. Concerns about odors were brought up then by neighbors.
“Sierra assured the Fresno County Planning Commission that it would cease operations if the Plant created a nuisance or odor,” the legal complaint reads.
The city annexed the property in 1971. The lawsuit contends that the various plant owners through the years have operated without the proper permits or violated the conditions of the permits they have.
Darling International, based in Irving, Texas, purchased the plant in 1987.
The lawsuit asked, among other things, for an injunction preventing Darling from conducting rendering activities until it received a Conditional Use Permit and complied with city code. The suit also asked for reasonable attorney’s fees, cost of the suit and “for such other and further relief as the court deems proper.”
In January 2017, Fresno and Darling agreed on a preliminary settlement. By September, the details were publicly released.
The Planning Commission approved rezoning the land and the agreement between Darling and the city on a 6-1 vote at the Oct. 18 meeting (Raj Sodhi-Layne was the lone dissenter).
Living With the Stink
Residents in the area have long complained about the negative health effects of the Darling plant and the accompanying odor.
At the Oct. 18 Planning Commission meeting, neighborhood leaders summarized the difficulties they have endured for most of their lives.
“I have seen this as a child. We used to drive past this site on our way to church. What we did was to roll our windows up immediately because (the smell) would enter our car and make us all sick,” Venice Curry, a west Fresno resident, told the commission.
Commissioner Kathy Bray questioned whether the new site would solve the odor problem. Shawn Griffin, a senior vice president with Darling, assured the board that new technology will help. He cited a recently built plant in Los Angeles that has not yielded any complaints in the last 12 months.
“We operate plants in downtown Houston, downtown Dallas (and) downtown Los Angeles,” Griffin said. “We are very friendly to the communities with new technologies we use.”
The company told GV Wire that it “is committed to constructing an odor abatement system that is state-of-the-art and will utilize all new equipment and the latest technology.”
Councilman Oliver Baines represents the district where the plant is located, as well as the proposed site.
“The community was fed up with the situation that they were in, with Darling having the inconsistent land use,” Baines said. “Nowhere else in the city of Fresno does that exist. I think you had the right recipe at the right time to make this happen.”
Increased Production at New Site
Darling is slated to go into a piece of city property between the wastewater treatment plant and a PG&E substation. While there are fewer home developments in that area, Jim Quist, who lives there, did object to the proposed location.
Darling could increase its meat processing from 850,000 pounds per day at the Belgravia plant to an average of 1.4 million pounds a day.
Moreover, Baines sees Darling as the first of many factory-type businesses locating at the city’s outskirts.
“There are other businesses that are very interested in locating out there. What you will see is that’s an opportunity site for businesses, particularly manufacturers and food processors in Fresno. Darling probably won’t be the only business there,” Baines predicted.
The deal is also contingent on Darling applying for federal New Market Tax Credits. They could be worth up to $9 million.
Economic Impact of $20 million
According to Darling’s figures, the current plant has 38 hourly employees and seven managers. That could expand to 60 workers at the new plant. The economic impact is pegged at $20 million.
Baines says the investment to move Darling is worth it: “We incentivized Amazon to come here. They are a multi-billion company as well. Anytime we have an opportunity at economic development and expansion, we are about that in the city.”
The construction industry should get a boost, too.
Because the project utilizes public incentives, Darling must pay workers such as electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters and laborers the prevailing wage rates to build the new plant.
[Note: this story has been updated, removing a reference to Jim Quist as a dairyman. Quist has not operated a diary since 2011]