The last barrier to creating a 13-acre African savanna project at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo was lifted after the National Park Service said the project can move forward, officials said Tuesday.
Zoo director Scott Barton said the Park Service decision came Friday in a letter to the city . Lawyers evaluated the letter over the weekend before officials announced Tuesday that the project is can proceed.
Construction could begin within a month on the African Adventure project, which will be home to lions, elephants, cheetahs, rhinos and meerkats.
"We are not waiting for anything now, we are ready to go," said John Valentino, Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corp. chairman. "We already have the project laid out and ready to go, and this was the only thing keeping us from moving forward."
The approval took longer than expected because planners needed to prepare a more detailed environmental report, and then a handful of Fresno residents filed a lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.
It took more than a year to gain state and federal approval on expanding the zoo into Roeding Park, which was necessary because the city had received federal grants for Roeding that were administered through the state.
Since 1980, Fresno received $483,544 in six grants for upgrades to the park and zoo. The grants give state and federal officials an opportunity to determine whether any new projects would adversely affect improvements paid for by the grants.
Lawyer Richard Harriman, who filed the lawsuit opposing the environmental documents and who first raised issues about needing federal oversight because of the grants, said Tuesday that he had not seen the Park Service letter.
After submitting designs for the Africa project last year, city and zoo officials could not proceed without a go-ahead from the National Park Service.
The long-awaited letter said the zoo's expansion from 18 to 39 acres does not violate Roeding Park's "outdoor recreation use" and does not require approval by the National Parks Service.
"This was really an obstacle that we had to address before we could proceed," Valentino said. "It's resolved in a way that's exactly how we hoped and allows us to develop."
The Park Service also weighed in on plans for a 10,000-square-foot African Safari Lodge, which will sell food and serve as a rest area for visitors. Harriman had argued that the lodge would replace outdoor recreation.
But David Siegenthaler, a Park Service program officer, said the lodge is viewed as a boon to zoo visitors. "Due to the hot summer temperatures ... shaded visitor use areas are especially helpful in extending the visitor use of the area," he wrote in the letter to the city.
Now the project goes before the Fresno Planning Commission next week for discussion of a minor issue related to park entrances.
The city had proposed adding a Golden State Boulevard entrance, but high-speed rail plans eliminated that idea. So city officials are recommending continuing to use the entrances at Belmont and Olive avenues. The Fresno City Council supported the plan last week.
"I have a lot of pride that it's happening in my district," said Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines. "It gives us an opportunity to have a premier zoo in the western United States, get some more jobs and gives us pride in the amenity we have in the zoo."
The Africa project will use money from Measure Z, a one-tenth-of-a-cent addition to Fresno County's sales tax to pay for zoo improvements. It also paid for Sea Lion Cove, Stingray Bay and a new otter exhibit.
On Dec. 6, the Fresno County Zoo Authority, which releases Measure Z money for zoo projects, will be asked to approve up to $55 million for the African Adventure project. If approved, construction will begin in December and should take about 18 months.
Previously, zoo officials estimated the project would cost about $40 million. Barton said those estimates were established three to four years ago at the height of the economic downturn.
"To accomplish what we wanted requires more resources," he said. "We had the money and so the question was whether to commit more Measure Z money to do this. There is never going to be a less expensive time."
Voters will decide next year whether to extend the tax another 10 years . The zoo has additional plans to build another 8- to 9-acre addition if voters agree to extend Measure Z.
If that happens, the zoo will add crocodiles, bring back hippos and expand existing areas , adding to South American, Asian and Australian species, Barton said.
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