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General Plan Revise: How Is Fresno County Juggling Housing, Ag, and the Environment?
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By Edward Smith
Published 2 months ago on
February 16, 2024

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Fresno County supervisors on Tuesday will consider the first significant General Plan update in more than 20 years.

Environmental advocates say the changes weaken ag land conversion requirements

Community groups want a plan that better protects the environment and neglected communities


On Tuesday, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors will hear the first major revision in more than 20 years to the document guiding future land use and growth. And, some of the changes in store have major ramifications for ag land.

Planners are juggling not only state housing requirements but also environmental and ag preservation mandates, said Bernard Jimenez, assistant director of the Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department.

The Fresno County Planning Commission heard the general plan update on Jan. 25. Commission members approved the document unanimously. Now, planners will present the document to the supervisors for final ratification.

The document is a balancing act between housing and agricultural preservation.

The state wants local governments to meet housing goals. For planners, that meets opening up rural areas, Jimenez said. Developing in rural areas also means increasing vehicle miles traveled — a metric the state began tracking in recent years to discourage emissions from commuters.

“On one hand, they’re asking us to preserve agricultural land to discourage folks from getting into vehicles and traveling,” Jimenez said. “On the other hand, they’re asking us to provide these urban types of uses for the first time, in some cases, in rural areas.”

Builders Looking to Eastern Fresno County, Officials Say it’s Too Early

Builders and local governments are looking to eastern Fresno County for housing.

In one example, the city of Fresno has eyed 9,000 acres in Fresno County between Fresno and Sanger called the Southeast Development Area to add 45,000 housing units.

However, the lack of a plan to pay for infrastructure and flattening population growth estimates has paused an environmental study there.

In addition, businessman, grower, and horse breeder John Harris proposed development at Harris River Ranch in 2022 with Ben Ewell, a developer and water rights attorney.

The General Plan identified the 7,000-acre area at Trimmer Springs Road and Highway 180 as a special study area. The Harris vision is for homes, commercial centers, and even a college in the area of the Kings River.

Supervisors instructed planners to include the 7,000-acre area as a study area to be looked at in the future. Jimenez said doing an environmental study on the area could add five years to getting the update, already four years late, out to the public.

Planning Commissioner Lisa Woolf said that because of the unknowns behind the study area and how many public comments were made about it, the study area should be removed from the General Plan.

Planning commissioners voted unanimously to remove the study area from the document. However, the supervisors on Tuesday will have the option of putting it back in.

Legacy farmers and environmental advocates want to limit new development on land near the Kings River. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

How Do Changes Affect Eastern Fresno County?

Development in eastern Fresno County draws contention from a spectrum of interested parties.

Legacy farmers and environmental groups want to limit housing construction, especially near the Kings River. Low-intensity ag land such as ranching protects river land, said Kent Kinney, president of the Kings River Land Trust — formerly El Rio Reyes Land Trust. Grazing animals help keep invasive grasses and shrubs in check.

“Range management typically allows native trees and shrubs to remain on site, which are necessary for wildlife, so that farm, that big ranch, has provided a lot of valuable wildlife habitat,” Kinney said.

Conversely, housing developers and some politicians see the area as the next logical step for growth. The California Department of Housing and Community Development will be returning Fresno County’s Housing Element with comments to planners in mid-March.

HCD will say whether the county is making available enough feasible land for housing.

The state says the county needs to have land available to add 2,350 residential units by 2031, something Jimenez called “minimal.”

Ag Land Mitigation Requirements Weakened

Conservation easements are a common strategy to mitigate the impacts of ag land conversion.

When builders convert farmland, often they are required to purchase other ag land and guarantee it won’t be developed in perpetuity.

Changes to the General Plan that will be discussed on Tuesday include some that weaken mitigation requirements to convert ag land, said Kinney, the land trust president.

The document gives supervisors more deference in granting land use changes without requiring mitigation efforts such as environmental studies or conservation easements.

One rule change allows the county to exempt mitigation requirements entirely if the land is being used for low-income housing, or if “the loss of agricultural land caused by the proposed conversion is outweighed by specific overriding economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits.”

Kinney said he was concerned about situations in which there would be “no mitigation at all.”

In addition, Planning Commissioner Lisa Woolf, wife of farming giant Stuart Woolf, said she was concerned about ag property being eaten up by development.

“We don’t want it to be eaten up by tracts of homes and they’ve voiced that to me already,” Woolf said. “What kind of teeth can we put into something like this to be clear that we would preserve, and by preserve, we mean ag land?”

Jimenez said the county doesn’t advocate development outside the spheres of influence of the cities and unincorporated communities.

All future proposed farmland conversions would have to go before supervisors for a vote. Farmland under the Williamson Act — an agreement a landowner enters guaranteeing ag use into the future — further protects ag land. Many parcels of ag land have Williamson Act protections

Jimenez added that California’s groundwater rules call into question the future of ag land in the state.

“With the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, this Central Valley, including this county, is facing the real possibility of not being able to irrigate all of its farmland,” Jimenez said.

Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, says that the Fresno County General Plan update will pave the way for high-density housing in southwest Fresno. (Shutterstock)

Social Justice Groups Praise General Plan Changes, Say it Could Go Further to Protect Environment, People

Jimenez said the General Plan update prioritizes development in unincorporated areas first. Ivanka Saunders, regional policy manager for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, praised the inclusion of an environmental justice element in the General Plan.

But a comment letter from the advocacy group also said those areas lack access to clean drinking water. And, wells in unincorporated communities continue to go dry.

“The County fails to collect adequate information on community needs to truly identify water, wastewater, stormwater drainage, and fire protection deficiencies,” the letter stated.

Other groups praised the plan for how it made higher-density development easier. Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, specifically noted that will be the case in southwest Fresno.

Planners developed the plan based on how they think the county will look in the future, Jimenez said. But it stops short of identifying or restricting growth in specific areas. They save that work for the county housing element.

“Analyzing the full build-out of our General Plan to the year 2042, we have included that we know there’s going to be future development, some of that development will be in the unincorporated area,” Jimenez said. “And based on population projections to that 2042 level, it is well beyond what we would expect to be associated with these sites.”

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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