A vote Friday by the Fresno County Zoo Authority cleared the way for construction to begin next month on the 13-acre African Adventure exhibit at Fresno Chaffee Zoo.
The 7-0 vote came over the objections of longtime opponents who have sought to scuttle the project.
The authority, which releases funds for zoo improvements, agreed to spend $51.7 million for the project, which will be home to lions, breeding elephants, cheetahs, rhinos, meerkats and other African animals.
The project will be funded with money from Measure Z, the tenth-of-a-cent sales tax dedicated to zoo improvements. Measure Z has already paid for Sea Lion Cove, Stingray Bay, Dino Dig and a river otter project in the old sea lion enclosure.
When finished, the project will take up about one-third of the future zoo, which is proposed to expand from 18 to 39 acres. The project's total cost will be $55.9 million, including about $4.2 million already spent on design costs.
Friday's approval was made possible after the National Park Service said last month the Africa project could proceed.
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.
Lawyer Richard Harriman, who filed a lawsuit opposing the project's environmental documents and first raised issues about needing federal oversight because of the grants, sent a letter Thursday to lawyers for the city and the zoo objecting to approval of the Africa project.
Harriman said the city's environmental impact report for the zoo still is inadequate, and he objected to the National Park Service's findings allowing the project to move forward.
Decisions by the Fresno Planning Commission and Fresno City Council to reject a new entrance on Golden State Boulevard and keep the existing entrances on Olive and Belmont avenues should be appealed, Harriman wrote in his letter. The plan approved by the commission and council also moves the city's Belmont Avenue ticket booth for entry to the park.
Lisa Flores, one of the plaintiffs in Harriman's lawsuit, told the zoo authority that Chaffee should pay the entire cost of moving the park entry booth. The $200,000 cost is being split by the zoo and the city.
She also complained that the city and the zoo won't provide enough parking for the larger number of people who will visit the zoo.
Zoo director Scott Barton said the city will move its maintenance yard out of Roeding Park, which will provide space for three or four more acres of parking.
Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines, who sits on the zoo authority, said it's up to a City Council member or Mayor Ashley Swearengin to appeal a planning commission or City Council decision. He said he will not appeal the decisions, and a spokesman for Swearengin said she won't either.
"This is a relatively historic day," Baines said. "A couple years from now, we'll ... have a world-class zoo. It wasn't an easy process, and people contemplated the issues pretty heavily."
Fresno resident Jan Bourret said she supports the zoo expansion, because it gives children opportunities to see things they may never get to see otherwise.
On a recent visit to the zoo, she said, her grandson gave the zoo high praise.
"He said it was better than Monterey Bay Aquarium," Bourret said. "That's something we should be extremely proud of."
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