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Fresno County Approves General Plan, Restores Study of Proposed Housing Near Kings River
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By Edward Smith
Published 2 months ago on
February 20, 2024

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Fresno County Board of Supervisors approves first General Plan update since 2000.

Board restores land near Kings River as a study area for future development.

The 400-page document must balance the need for housing with environmental protections.


Fresno County Supervisors Tuesday approved the 400-page General Plan update, adding back in a proposed development area along the Kings River that the County Planning Commission removed in January.

“We look forward to working with the Kings River Conservancy and any other entities or parties that would like to discuss this with us.” — Developer Ben Ewell, who is proposing a housing project on 700 acres northwest of Trimmer Springs Road

Ag mitigation, environmental protections, and leapfrog development were recurring concerns from the public and city of Fresno officials for the document outlining the direction of future growth in Fresno County.

Bernard Jimenez, assistant director of the Fresno County Public Works and Planning Department, said the document, more than a decade in the making, maintains the goals outlined in the original plan dating to 2000. The one difference is the addition of an environmental justice element that planners collaborated with the California Attorney General’s Office to write.

“The approval today by the board sets in place policies and programs that will guide development of the unincorporated areas of Fresno County for the next 18 to 20 years,” Jimenez said.

Proposed Kings River Development Draws Attention from Public

A proposed development at the famed Harris River Ranch along the Kings River drew concern from the public. The vision from landowner, businessman, and horse breeder John Harris, along with Ben Ewell, a developer and water rights attorney, calls for homes, commercial centers, and even a college near the river.

The board of supervisors in 2021 instructed planners to include the land at Highway 180 and Trimmer Springs Road as a special study area for future consideration.

The proposal drew several comment letters about the impact that development would have on the river. During a Fresno County Planning Commission meeting, commissioner Lisa Woolf said because of the unknowns and how many public comments the project drew, the study area should be removed.

Environmental Document Would Be Required Before Building on Kings River

Ewell spoke before supervisors about the project, giving some details about the proposal.

Of the 7,000 acres at the Harris River Ranch, he and Harris are looking at developing 700. That land would not be along the Kings River, Ewell said. None of the land being proposed for development has Williamson Act contracts, which limit non-agricultural uses in exchange for tax benefits.

“If this project does forward, it’s all located northwesterly of Trimmer Springs Road, not southeasterly,” Ewell said. “In other words, there’s nothing on the river side of this project.”

Ewell said the project was not getting any exemptions and a full environmental impact report would have to be done.

“We look forward to working with the Kings River Conservancy and any other entities or parties that would like to discuss this with us,” Ewell said.

Developers, Conservationists Call for Plan Outlining Protections for Kings River

Planners inserted a caveat to developing the Harris River Ranch requiring the county to first revise the Kings River Regional Plan — something conservancy groups have called for.

“We did some things wrong (on the San Joaquin River) that I’m going to make sure don’t happen on the Kings River. That is, building right up to the very boundary of the river and locking in a major section of the river away from the community.” — Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau

Supervisor Steve Brandau said that local governments made mistakes when they allowed development along the San Joaquin River. Homes built nearly right up to the river’s edge prevented public access to the river, said Brandau, who is a member of the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

“We did some things wrong that I’m going to make sure don’t happen on the Kings River,” Brandau said. “That is, building right up to the very boundary of the river and locking in a major section of the river away from the community.”

A regional plan looks at what needs to be protected along the river and how to do that, said Kent Kinney, president of the Kings River Land Trust — formerly El Rio Reyes Land Trust.

Currently, only very limited residential and agricultural uses are permitted along the river. The most intensive uses along the river are for gravel mining. Several mining operations have been approved by the county through the years, Kinney said.

“That conversion to non-habitat uses has been occurring pretty rapidly, I think that that plan, that regional plan, would have to take into consideration what has been modified. As a plan, it should have a long-range perspective to it that would protect or recommend protections and mitigation for future development,” Kinney said.

The current regional plan dates to the 1970s. Ewell spoke in support of doing the plan.

“We do support and will assist in the preparation of an update to the Kings River Regional Plan. We think that’s a good idea. As mentioned by previous speakers, it’s quite old,” Ewell said.

Supervisors ultimately restored the project area to the General Plan.

Is Ag Land Mitigation Legally Enforceable?

City of Fresno Planning and Development Department Director Jennifer Clark penned a letter to Fresno County planners concerned that changes in requirements for builders converting ag land are not legally enforceable.

“There are a number of policies that are not legally enforceable, they are not required,” Clark said. “They could be voluntary, they could be discretionary by staff.”

Those changes could allow for increased greenhouse gas emissions without requiring the necessary mitigation measures, Clark said. Being in a regional air basin, those emissions affect residents in the city of Fresno.

“(The city) has worked very hard to ensure that we are meeting the required GHG reductions by the state. If development occurs in the county — because we’re in a regional air basin — obviously it’s very important to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules,” Clark said.

Jimenez said the updates are stricter than the 2000 General Plan.

The document gives the board a “menu of options” to use at the project level, Jimenez said. Supervisors can require mitigation fees or purchasing conservation easements at a one-to-one ratio, something that Kinney’s land trust organization advocates.

Jimenez said they took the model for environmental mitigation from state requirements.

“Exemptions were actually identified by the state in their model ordinance,” Jimenez said. “State Department of Conservation actually put out for all jurisdictions consideration of a model ordinance on ag mitigation.”

 

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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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