Some Fresno residents gathered Wednesday to oppose a zoning amendment that would allow farming on residential lots or open space within city limits.
A proposed 360-acre almond orchard within a residential area in southwest Fresno was the catalyst for a noon press conference in front of City Hall.
Speakers focused on public health issues caused by farming that could affect residents near the proposed orchard, including pesticides and polluted air and water.
They urged people to oppose the amendment as currently written that would allow farming on any parcel currently zoned for residential or open space. It will be put before a vote of the City Council Thursday.
The proposed amendment was spurred by Darius Assemi, president of Granville Homes, who talked to city officials earlier this year about his desire to plant the almond orchard.
He defended the project Wednesday as an improvement because it cleans up property that has been used for illegal dumping.
The vacant lot where the orchard is proposed was once land where developers, including Donald Trump, dreamed of building luxury homes and the Running Horse golf course. After those plans fell through, Assemi's C&A Farms bought a chunk of the foreclosed land with Hostetler Ranches of Los Banos.
Assemi said he hopes to eventually convert the orchard, which will be called Mission Ranch, into housing when the market improves.
Bob Mitchell, of the Golden Westside Planning Committee and Concerned Citizens of West Fresno, opposes the amendment and what it could mean to residents citywide.
The planned orchard of 50,000 trees would be a "heavy industrial farming operation" -- nothing near the small farming plots that currently exist nearby, he said, and would be near a veterans home and some schools.
Pastor Booker T. Lewis of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno called the amendment an "on the fly" change to policy to accommodate a developer -- a proposal that should be addressed in the more extensive general plan revisions now underway.
Physician Venise Curry with Communities for a New California said cancer-causing pesticides that would be used on the orchard is an additional burden to west Fresno that's "unfortunately been a dumping ground for the city."
"The public health issues are serious and ongoing," she said, and "should be a priority over profit."
Tom Matott, with Fresno Metro Ministry, said "urban agriculture is good, but it needs to be regulated."
The amendment doesn't adequately address environmental concerns like pesticide use, he said.
The amendment includes language that farms would have to comply with existing pesticide regulations, overseen by Fresno County's agriculture commissioner. But Christine Barker, a coordinator for Fresno's Building Healthy Communities, said there's been problems with reporting violations and enforcing regulations.
Mike Wells with Fresno Metro Ministry said he and other community members met with Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines Tuesday, who told them he will propose delaying the vote that is planned on Thursday, which could be addressed again in November.
While project opponents have said they need new housing and commercial development, not farmland, to help bolster the economy in their impoverished neighborhoods, Assemi views the planned orchard as a benefit to west Fresno.
"We have cleaned up the property, first of all, instead of it being a dump site and used for illegal activity ... It's kind of ironic," said Assemi of the opposition. "Here's a piece of property we want to clean up and plant as a beautiful orchard, and we all talk about how we need to preserve farming and how it's an important part of Fresno County, and this project is close to the edge of town."
Jennifer Clark, director of the city's Development and Resources Management Department, said the amendment could also help increase and regulate small-scale farms and community gardens.
However, the current amendment has no minimum or maximum size for allowable farming.
The amendment could also help protect existing farms within city limits that have been annexed in. Under current zoning, if one of these farms disappeared and then wanted to re-establish, it wouldn't be allowed, Clark said.
If City Council rejects the amendment, they'd have the option to defer the vote to a later date, or send it back to the planning commission or city staff for further analysis or revision.