Under new rules being drafted, Fresno officials want to unleash big-time farmers — including perhaps the region's most successful developer — while slipping a regulatory leash on small gardeners.
Fresno planners are trying to pass 59 pages of new rules for commercial growers, community gardeners and just about any other organized group of green thumbs doing business within the city's 112 square miles.
City officials say their goal is simple. Agriculture in an urban setting can be dicey. Fresno's got hardly any farm regulations on the books. Keeping the peace in a future with people living closer than ever to each other means getting some rules.
The proposal — in essence, freeing the hands of commercial farmers while domesticating what are now fiercely independent community gardeners — heads to the City Council on Nov. 7.
The Assemi family, whose empire includes farming as well as home building, got things rolling seven months ago by asking City Hall to legitimize a plan to grow almonds on what once was the Running Horse project in west Fresno. The Assemis now find themselves portrayed by critics not as the long-sought answer to one of Fresno's biggest eyesores, but as potential large-scale polluters.
Many of these critics are among Fresno's biggest champions of agriculture — but mainly if it's a community garden whose volunteer labor grows fruits and vegetables for the hungry. These critics were stunned to learn that City Hall's new rules aim to tell small-time gardeners what they can and can't do with their private property.
And over at City Hall are the officials who decided to take separate land-use challenges (commercial farms, community gardens) and combine them into one edict. They are dazed by the anger.
Perhaps none of this would have happened if a top Assemi executive hadn't agreed when City Hall asked to add community gardens to the company's request to put commercial farms in the zoning ordinance.
"If I'd known then what I know today, I probably would have said, 'No, thanks,' " says Jeff Roberts, vice president for Assemi-owned Granville Homes.
But there is more at play here than a "text amendment," an arid term from the world of zoning codes.
The proposed rules are opening old wounds. West Fresno activists once again see the fate of the old Running Horse site as a test of the city's commitment to environmental justice.
The rules are making for twisted arguments. Critics who for decades have blasted residential developers for chewing up prime ag land are now blasting Assemi for trying to turn a failed residential project back into prime ag land.
And the controversy sparked by these rules suggests Mayor Ashley Swearengin's complex web of plans to halt fringe growth and revitalize older Fresno won't be easy to execute.
Top city officials already are rethinking their handiwork. The zoning code, says planning director Jennifer Clark, "will continue to improve."
Running Horse saga
Billionaire developer Donald Trump stood outside a couple of double-wide trailers in west Fresno on May 25, 2007, and summed up the mess behind him.
"What you have here," Trump said of the failed Running Horse golf course/McMansion project, "is a wasting asset."
Wasted dream is more like it.
Running Horse has entered local lore as shorthand for good intentions and high ideals run amok.
Tom O'Meara of Carmel came to town in 2002 with an idea. He would buy hundreds of acres of prime farmland (mostly truck farms through the years) and construct 800 upscale homes. Then he would build a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Then he would land a prestigious PGA golf tournament. Then he would donate a piece in the project for the central San Joaquin Valley's first veterans home.
He named the project Running Horse.
None of this was extraordinary for Fresno. What made O'Meara different was Running Horse's location. Fresno growth for 50 years had surged to the north and east. O'Meara would build in west Fresno.
West Fresno, center of the local African-American community, was dubbed "the place where dreams go to die." O'Meara, much to the delight of west-side leaders, promised a success story in Running Horse that would spark the area's renaissance.
Then Running Horse went bankrupt. The bargain-hunting Trump had second thoughts and fled town. O'Meara was sentenced to more than six years in prison for fraud.
But four things emerged from the Running Horse debacle that now influence the proposed text amendment at City Hall:
O'Meara was always short of cash. He pursued City Hall as a partner, but never with unqualified success. The site's next developer clearly would need deep pockets and proven expertise. And it became obvious that some form of government subsidy would be necessary for large-scale private development in struggling neighborhoods.
Much of Fresno is ringed by rural-residential lots — parcels a few acres in size with a house, occasionally a well and perhaps a few chickens. The politics and economics of these lots make it hard for developers to find chunks of land big enough to be worth their interest. Hence the spur to leap-frog development as developers seek big, one-owner farms. O'Meara, if nothing else, hammered together a sizable piece of empty land perfect for a major project.
Running Horse was empty, but not pristine. Much of the golf course was to be 15 or so feet below street level. Before going belly up, O'Meara dug a series of trenches stretching from the corner of Whites Bridge and Hughes avenues to the corner of Church and Marks avenues — 11/2 miles of ugliness.
West Fresno residents, long sensitive to any land use suggesting environmental racism, were incensed to be stuck with this magnet for illegal dumping. They told City Hall to do something. City Hall, on the verge of bankruptcy, could only shrug its shoulders.
Hunger meets its match
The decade-long rise and fall of Running Horse also saw Fresno activists confront a paradox.
Fresno County, the most productive agricultural region on earth, is home to immense swaths of poverty. Almost nowhere in America is this tragedy, and the food insecurity it breeds, more concentrated than in Fresno.
Local community gardens, one of many solutions, quietly came of age as Running Horse grabbed the headlines.
A community garden, unlike a backyard garden, is a communal enterprise.
Community gardens gained public notice in Fresno in the 1980s as thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants settled in.
Food, of course, is a community garden's main value. But Fresnans recognized early the role of such a garden in civic health.
The Bee nearly 20 years ago wrote about an apartment complex on Calaveras Street near downtown plagued by drunks.
"Now, you can see they've fenced off that front there and the Southeast Asians have a wonderful community garden," a neighbor said.
Such benefits have multiplied with time, according to a 2012 survey of community gardens by Fresno Metro Ministry.
Three-quarters of gardeners share what they grow with friends and relatives, the report found. Ninety percent say their work makes them feel better about themselves and more likely to get involved in civic activities.
Community gardens, the report found, "have proven to be useful in reducing stress, increasing recreation opportunities and bringing neighbors closer together."
But there are challenges.
A community garden popular with what some described as beer-swilling and pot-smoking vagrants embroiled the Tower District in two years of controversy. And City Hall, trying to build a police station in southeast Fresno, battled Hmong gardeners for about as long before finding them an alternative site.
Fresno now has nearly 20 community gardens and more are on the way, Metro Ministry officials say.
City Hall codemakers gave community gardens a wide berth when they were mostly a novelty. Then Swearengin took office in January 2009 vowing to convince Fresnans to reject the suburbs for life in the inner city.
Suddenly unregulated community gardens were on a collision course with Swearengin's dreams of high-density urban life.
The mayor and Assemis
Swearengin has plans — lots of them.
There's the 2035 general plan update, mandated by law. This behemoth, still aborning, is to guide Fresno's growth for the next quarter-century or so.
The Fulton Corridor Specific Plan is to remake Fulton Mall. The Downtown Neighborhoods Community Plan aims to revitalize the 11 square miles that were pre-World War II Fresno. A reform of the development code will make it easier to open an outdoor cafe.
The council chamber in spring 2012 rocked with cheers from community activists when the City Council approved a general plan theme requiring 45% of residential development to be in older neighborhoods.
This infill housing isn't to be exclusively low-income, government-sponsored stock. Much is to be market-rate housing on a scale that fulfills the update's goal of a more egalitarian Fresno.
Swearengin must turn theory, much of it embraced by the same activists who champion community gardens, into reality.
The mayor doesn't know whether to love or loathe the Assemi empire.
She never misses a chance to brag about the change in the Cultural Arts District on the north edge of downtown. The place is full of new commercial space and loft apartments with cars packing tenant parking lots. More is on the way.
The Assemi family, with the help of millions in public incentives from the city's Redevelopment Agency, built (or is building) most of it. These projects so far give Swearengin just about the only tangible evidence that the general plan's infill goal is realistic.
But the Assemis seem to relish poking Swearengin and infill activists in the eye.
Granville President Darius Assemi raised eyebrows in July when he and a group of business leaders drafted a report titled "Creating Prosperity in Fresno" that asked City Hall to, among other things, define infill development as anything occurring within the 1983 sphere of influence. Critics say such a definition would unreasonably expand the area considered for infill, all but killing any hope for the 45% goal.
The Assemi family wants to build a huge master-planned community called Westlake on the west side of Highway 99, far to the north of traditional west Fresno. The area isn't in the boondocks, but almost.
The Assemi family also plans to build a private university on the open spaces near Millerton Lake, some 10 miles northeast of Fresno, that is to feature five health-science colleges. The project almost certainly will be accompanied by enough middle- and high-priced housing projects to rival anything to be built in inner-city Fresno.
City Council members, recognizing the bind created by the 45% mandate, passed the Infill Development Act last year. The act's upshot has been twofold.
A task force authorized by the act was charged with finding ways to make inner-city development appealing to the private sector now that the Redevelopment Agency is dead. That's almost always code for the same thing Running Horse's O'Meara wanted from City Hall — taxpayer subsidies.
And an infill subcommittee chaired by Council Member Lee Brand held hearings to identify the landscape awaiting a developer venturing into inner-city Fresno.
The committee learned that Fresno is projected to have 1 million people by 2050. It learned there is little cost advantage to inner-city development because land values throughout the metropolitan area, including the fringe, are so modest. And it learned that Fresno has more than 8,200 acres (about 13 square miles) of vacant or open farmland.
Almost none of the big vacant parcels are in the urban core. Inner-city parcels appear best suited for a couple of single-family houses, a duplex or two — and community gardens.
Most of the big vacant parcels are on the city's fringe. One of the biggest is the old Running Horse site, right in the middle of what is perhaps west Fresno's most likely path of future growth.
West Fresno, because of the freeway system, is small compared to other sections of the city. It appears at this point that any new public subsidies to entice developers to build in disadvantaged neighborhoods would include most, if not all, of west Fresno.
Zoning gray area
"We like to do things as close to the book as we can," Granville Homes' Roberts says, explaining why the company sought a zoning change last spring. "We perceived a gray area."
That gray area is the result of the housing bust that began some six years ago.
Developers had plenty of money for large pieces of fringe-area farmland when houses were selling like hotcakes. These parcels were annexed to the city. But when the market collapsed, homebuilders were stuck in a depressed market with vacant land zoned for houses, not agriculture.
Some developers figured they could grow something on the land until the market recovered. City officials liked this better than watching the land become a weed-infested fire trap.
The sticking point, Roberts' "gray area," was zoning. How were developers to keep the residential zoning code and grow crops until the economy improved, yet stay legal? Applying for repeated zoning changes is expensive. The solution was to do an amendment to the zoning code that allows commercial farming in residentially zoned areas.
This zoning challenge simmered at City Hall until March. That's when the Assemi family and a Los Banos-based partner bought 360 acres at and near the old Running Horse site. Darius Assemi declined to give the selling price.
The Assemis have thousands of acres of almonds in the Valley. Their game plan for Running Horse was twofold.
First, clean and grade the land.
"We spent more than $300,000 to do it," Granville's Roberts says.
Next, get rid of the Running Horse stigma. The site is now called Mission Ranch.
There currently is no market in west Fresno for the houses built by Granville, Roberts says. But, he adds, that day is not that far away.
In the meantime, Roberts says, Granville will grow almonds.
The Assemis want to install an irrigation system by the end of December and plant the trees in the first weeks of 2014. The trees should begin producing in four years. Somewhere down the road, perhaps in 10 years, Granville will begin replacing trees with houses.
If the Assemis merely wanted to grow almonds, Roberts says, they would have gone a mile or two outside the city.
"The land's highest and best use is homes," Roberts says. "We want to accomplish a long-term goal and have a master-planned community there."
Roberts on March 15 filed a one-page proposed zoning amendment with the city. He asked that permitted uses for R-1 zoning (single family houses) include, among other things, "commercial agricultural operations on an interim basis."
Mission Ranch is zoned R-1.
Roberts says a city staffer read the letter, then asked if the Assemis would mind adding a few lines about community gardens. A text amendment can cost thousands of dollars, even if initiated by the city. City Hall wanted to piggy-back on the Assemis' dime.
Roberts replied: "Sure."
Plan expands ag rules
City planning director Clark says staff decided Roberts' application was the perfect time to do a citywide zoning update for all types of agricultural uses in all kinds of residential areas.
The text amendment defines a community garden as "any piece of land, public or private, managed by a responsible party, where plants are cultivated by a group of individuals for personal consumption, for sale, for donation, for beautification of the community and/or for educational purposes."
The current code allows other uses in R-1 zoning areas — small family day-care homes and certain home occupations, for example.
The text amendment would add "agricultural crops, fruit trees, nut trees, vines, and plant nurseries" to permitted activities.
The amendment ends with a detailed explanation of what community gardeners must do to keep City Hall happy.
Anything over an acre in size needs a grading permit, for example. A new community garden in certain cases needs an approved plot plan and operational statement. City Hall wants the community garden application to include who is responsible for the project, that person's 24-hour contact information, how many gardeners will work the site and the hours they will be there.
There are nearly 20 pages of such rules. Commercial farmers face nothing like it in the text amendment.
Things are different in Clovis.
Planning director Dwight Kroll says Clovis has long had commercial farming "by right" — meaning relatively little intrusion from City Hall. He says there's been hardly a peep of protest.
However, Kroll adds, he's not aware of a situation like the one at Mission Ranch where a developer tries to return the site of a failed housing project to its farming origins.
Clovis also has community gardens — unregulated for the most part.
"We've never felt the need to codify that," Kroll says. "Raising your own food is a good thing."
Plenty of arguments
Commercial farming "by right" is the first beef of a coalition of community and environmental groups fighting the text amendment. Ground zero for their anger is Mission Ranch.
"We have very grave concerns" with the proposed farm, says Robert Mitchell, co-chairman of the Golden Westside Planning Committee. "First and foremost, we desire to see homes in that location."
Mitchell describes Mission Ranch as an "industrial" operation in an area full of more benign activities.
Sunset Elementary School is about a quarter-mile to the east. A slow but steady wave of homes, apartments and businesses along California Avenue is headed that way. The veterans home finally is open and would be only yards from the almond trees.
Mitchell grants that farming is going full tilt in much of the area around Mission Ranch. The difference is seniority.
"If I move there, I am not mad at the farmer," Mitchell says. "He's doing what he wants to do. I accept that. But you don't have an area become a 360-acre industrial farm that wasn't there when you moved in."
Mitchell sees Mission Ranch, with its potential for drifting clouds of pesticides and dust, as a threat to the health of west Fresnans. The irrigation of as many as 50,000 almond trees with well water can't be good for an aquifer of vital interest to nearby well users, he says.
Mitchell is skeptical of Mission Ranch's timeline. He knows by heart the pitch: The trees will be there for only a decade, maybe two; time moves fast; the mayor's inner-city revitalization plans are sure to bear fruit; that's when Mission Ranch turns from almonds to market-rate Granville homes; trust us.
West Fresno has heard it all before, Mitchell says.
"West Fresno, one of the city's earliest communities, has not progressed," Mitchell says. "In fact, it has regressed. You're saying to our community, 'We've redeveloped the Lowell community. We've gotten $16 million to redo Fulton Mall. And a major developer who owns the largest piece of property in your community says maybe in 20 years he'll develop it.'
"We're becoming the raisin — we're drying up, we're dying."
Granville Homes' Roberts rejects any suggestion that Mission Ranch and the Assemi family would do anything to harm west Fresno.
"We want to be a good neighbor," Roberts says. "We realize there's a lot of concern. We're going to try to have even more restrictive farming practices than you might see in a noncity area."
The city's staff report includes dueling letters on the wisdom of commercial urban agriculture in general, and Mission Ranch in particular.
Officials from the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability said the city failed to follow the law in preparing key text amendment documents.
The Fresno-based Leadership Counsel, a nonprofit group of scientists, educators and public-policy experts focused on community health, allege the commercial farming allowed by the text amendment "would facilitate further environmental degradation of west Fresno" and other neighborhoods.
The Leadership Counsel notes that a recent study released by the state Environmental Protection Agency shows the 93706 ZIP code (which includes west Fresno) as the ZIP code "most burdened by multiple sources of pollution in all of California."
City officials said the amendment and supporting documents are fulfilling the law. They said Fresnans shouldn't worry about harmful effects from commercial urban farming because "the text amendment incorporates standards of practice and regulation, which will protect people and resources."
Community garden activists are more stumped than steamed.
This isn't to suggest they're fine with the proposed rules for their gardens. They worry about the money and effort to comply. After all, they say, simplicity and grassroots organizing are the essence of community gardens.
And the activists can't stand the idea of City Hall allowing a big farm to operate with seemingly little city oversight while next door there might be a neighborhood garden with summer squash that is regulated to the hilt.
"That just sticks in the craw," says the Rev. Sophia DeWitt, interim co-director of the nonprofit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
The activists also ask of the text amendment: Why now? They say they and city planners for months have been discussing community garden rules for the 2035 general plan update. That document, Fresno's top authority for land use, could go to the City Council next spring.
"Our concern is that this text amendment could trump that work," says Tom Mattot, Fresno Metro Ministry's urban food systems coordinator.
City Hall is always about politics. Proposed text amendment 13-02 is no different.
The activists say they probably would call off the dogs if the Assemi family would build its string of health schools at Mission Ranch rather than Millerton Lake.
That would be a big step toward making the general plan's vision a reality, they say.
Granville's Roberts said the schools won't move.
The activists admit a grudging respect for the Assemis, who seem to always get things done.
"Granville," says DeWitt, "has a particular stature."
Council Member Oliver Baines, who represents west Fresno, says it's good to have the Assemi family in the neighborhood.
"They don't make an investment of that size in that location to keep it an almond orchard forever," Baines says.
But Baines thinks some activists (he declines to name names) are using Mission Ranch as a proxy to inflame passions in west Fresno.
"There's an element that's co-opting this issue on behalf of west Fresno residents that don't necessarily have the same concerns that my residents do," Baines says.
Fresno Metro Ministry officials and Golden Westside's Mitchell say they know of no one who is stirring up trouble in west Fresno. They say their concern with the text amendment is born of their own research and conviction.
The City Council was slated to review the text amendment on Oct. 10. Baines, without explanation, asked the council for a three-week delay. The hearing was recently postponed another week to Nov. 7.
Roberts after the Oct. 10 meeting said he had lined up 70 people to speak in the amendment's favor. One of the activists said his side could produce just as many opponents.
City planning director Clark has been in Fresno for only a few months. She is hoping everyone finds a compromise.
"No code is ever perfect."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.