Fresno City Hall wants to join citizens group in fight over rendering plant

The Fresno BeeDecember 13, 2013 

MTD EPZ COUNCIL 6

Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines.

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The city of Fresno wants to join forces in a legal battle over a rendering plant with the same citizens group that only a few months ago was suing City Hall.

City officials on Friday said they will file papers with a judge seeking permission to intervene on the side of Concerned Citizens of West Fresno in the group's lawsuit against Darling International, the rendering plant operator.

The city's shift toward Concerned Citizens was set in motion several weeks ago by the City Council in closed session.

Council Member Oliver Baines, who represents west Fresno, said the council's action is a big step toward justice for residents near the plant.

"This is simply a matter of the city being fair in the way it applies its own laws," Baines said.

Fresno lawyer Jeff Reid, who represents Darling, said the plant already has all permits necessary to operate in its current spot. He said Darling officials are confident a judge will come to the same conclusion.

The Texas-based company runs a plant on Belgravia Avenue on the west side that for decades has turned inedible animal parts from local slaughterhouses into economically-useful products.

West-side activists and Darling officials for years have waged a complex political and legal war over City Hall's authority to regulate the plant.

No one disputes the basics. The plant in the 1950s was in rural Fresno County. Urban growth, spurred by the city's annexation of the area about 40 years ago, eventually closed the gap.

Both sides say public health is good and public nuisances are bad.

And there's no doubt that the plant performs a vital societal chore (something's got to be done with animal discards) while generating an economic benefit (the regional livestock industry employs thousands).

But it's been impossible to bridge the gulf between the two sides.

Activists say the plant must have a conditional use permit, a city-issued edict that spells out rules of operation and gives City Hall a powerful tool to shut the plant's doors if things go amiss.

Darling officials say the plant since the mid-20th century has met all legal operational mandates, making a CUP unnecessary and unfair.

With Darling refusing to budge, Concerned Citizens of West Fresno about five years ago began putting pressure on City Hall. The group said odors were overpowering and unhealthy. The group said animal parts from trucks headed to the plant sometimes fell on neighborhood streets.

A conditional use permit, something required for any other rendering plant in town, is a must for Darling as well, Concerned Citizens told City Hall.

Darling officials have never wavered in their reply. The plant played by the rules when it was in the county, they said. Plant regulations were vetted by city officials before annexation and found sufficient. The plant has continued to follow those rules. The company has invested millions to make the plant, if not as sweet as a flower garden, then at least odor-neutral.

City Hall through it all was like the proverbial deer in the headlights, stumped about what to do next.

West-side activists finally tired of news conferences in front of the plant and pleas for help at City Council meetings. They sued Darling and the city in April, saying City Hall refuses to enforce its own rules.

City officials asked the court to drop the city from the lawsuit. The court agreed. Concerned Citizens appealed.

The closed-door decision to become Concerned Citizen's ally means the City Council has finally found its backbone, Baines said.

"This is the change that both this (District 3) office and the community have been wanting for some time," Baines said. "I am elated and very proud of my colleagues and so very happy for Concerned Citizens of West Fresno."

City Attorney Doug Sloan negotiated a truce with Concerned Citizens. The agreement signed in late November calls for Concerned Citizens to drop its appeal and City Hall to put its weight behind a demand for a Darling CUP.

Sloan on Friday said the city, should it get the judicial green light, is ready to file a complaint against Darling that can be boiled down to two points -- Darling must get a CUP; without it, the plant must close.

If they get a judge's OK to intervene, Sloan said, city officials will file their own lawsuit asking the court to authorize stiffer rules for plant operations.

Plenty of confusion remains. It's unclear why the City Council suddenly found its resolve. It's not obvious why City Hall, usually so protective of its sovereign authority, wants a judge to determine whether it can issue something as basic as a CUP. And there's no guarantee that, should Darling go through the application process, the City Council would approve a CUP.

The stakes, especially at City Hall, are high. Mayor Ashley Swearengin, in hot pursuit of a second-term legacy that puts a dent in the city's deep poverty, wants to position Fresno as a West Coast food-processing dynamo. Raking a long-established local operator over the regulatory coals might not be much of an industry incentive.

And it's no secret at City Hall that city officials would love to find a way (in other words, financing) to move the Darling plant to a corner of the immense sewer farm further west of the city. Baines declined to speculate on the odds of this happening.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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