Leaders from across Fresno and Madera counties pledged Tuesday to cool their long-standing feud over how the region should grow, but only after hours of debate showed that a détente won't come easy.
Billed as a regional growth summit, Tuesday's crowded meeting in a downtown Fresno government office was the first time representatives from the two counties and the city of Fresno gathered under the same roof to discuss development since a raft of lawsuits divided the parties.
County leaders, who organized the event, pressed Fresno to answer for litigation that it filed against the counties for approving thousands of new homes and businesses north of town.
"Every time we advocate growth, we get lawsuits thrown in front of us," said Madera County Supervisor Max Rodriguez. "We want to grow up. You want to grow up. We don't want to be suing each other."
While the counties don't want the city meddling in their affairs, the city doesn't want the fields and foothills outside its borders drowned in sprawl.
Already, the San Joaquin Valley has a reputation for bad planning. Massive subdivisions have displaced farmland, downtowns are marked by blight and local commutes contribute to some of the nation's worst air pollution.
The city is not free of blame for the problems, and in fact, pursued many of the growth strategies that it's now condemning.
Expectations that the region will remain one of California's fastest-growing areas underscores a need for better planning, officials agreed. Even the governor's office has offered to extend a hand.
"When Sacramento wants to step in, it behooves us to take a look in the mirror," said Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, a former Fresno City Council member. "I can't think of a time that (our) relations have been worse."
An envoy from the state Strategic Growth Council attended Tuesday, but contributed little to the discussion.
More than 100 onlookers packed the meeting hall of the Fresno Council of Governments.
The summit was dominated by the meeting's sponsors, Fresno and Madera counties. Planners from the two jurisdictions shared visions for up to 100,000 new residents living along the San Joaquin River and in the hills near Friant.
Speakers addressed the need for new roads, adequately funded infrastructure and river preservation.
"Sprawl is not a matter of where you develop. It's a matter of how it occurs," said Madera County Planning Director Norman Allinder, who committed to pairing housing with jobs to prevent long commutes and the associated problems of traffic and bad air quality.
Fresno city leaders, who attended the summit as guests, want to see regional development steered within their borders, particularly to their long-neglected downtown.
The city is suing the counties over the proposed 5,200-home Tesoro Viejo development in Madera County and 2,500-home Friant Ranch in Fresno County. City attorneys say such "leapfrog" development will add unwanted traffic, air pollution and infrastructure demands to the region.
Madera County has recently retaliated with a suit of its own against Fresno. It's suing for the proposed El Paseo business and entertainment complex on Herndon Avenue, alleging the project will bring many of the same problems that the city fears will come with Tesoro Viejo.
The three hours of county discussion Tuesday left little time for the city to engage at the forum. But City Manager Mark Scott spoke briefly, responding to criticism over city litigation and committing to meet with the counties to discuss settling the lawsuits.
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