Fresno County's general plan update is overdue

The Fresno BeeDecember 15, 2013 

In 2000, Fresno County adopted a general plan, its guiding document on land-use policy, that had as one of its requirements a five-year review. That requirement was ignored.

It's now the end of 2013, and county officials are planning to present that review to the Board of Supervisors — for 2005.

The county also is very tardy on state-mandated annual reviews. The most recent annual report from Fresno County appears to have been submitted to state officials in May 2003 for the 2001-02 fiscal year.

That was the one and only time the county did the annual review. So the county is 10 years late on that review.

"If a private business ran itself like this, it'd be bankrupt," said Mary Savala, a vice president with the League of Women Voters of Fresno, which has been critical of the county's general plan review process.

Missed deadlines, however, are just part of the concerns — and quite possibly not the biggest ones — expressed by the league. Those may be reserved for what is inside the update, which some league members say feels more like a major reworking of the document than simply a review.

The league, for instance, says the proposed revision will delete 18 policies, add 36 new ones and alter the meaning of another 84. That's 138 "major modifications," the organization says.

"This has been a major upgrade," Savala said.

Changes are so significant, league members say, that an updated environmental impact report should be conducted, instead of the county's plan for a lesser document known as a "negative declaration."

Another league member, Radley Reep, fears that the county may be abandoning a core guiding principle of the 2000 general plan — halting urban sprawl — in favor of developing rural areas and other parts of the county that are outside current cities.

County officials acknowledge they are way behind schedule.

"They are correct, we are delayed in doing it," said Bernard Jimenez, deputy director of the county's Department of Public Works and Planning.

Even before the Great Recession, he said, "advance planning, unfortunately, has not been a top priority." But the economic downturn, he said, made things even worse. Staffing for long-term planning was cut in half.

"We do what we can do and we do it within the funding allocation we have," Jimenez said. But, he said, planning is almost always going to lose in tight budget times when push comes to shove with law enforcement departments such as the district attorney.

But Jimenez doesn't agree that the current general plan update is a major reworking of the 2000 document.

"We're not compromising fundamental policies," he said. "We're actually strengthening them."

Jimenez said the update will further restrict rural residential projects and preserve agricultural land by, for instance, making it harder to carve out a homesite parcel on a large rural property.

Not surprisingly — given some of the already public plans for the area — much of the league's focus is on the Friant region, which has long been attractive for development because of Millerton Lake and rolling foothills that sit at the base of the Sierra Nevada.

One update highlighted by the league has the county in the general plan update promoting the Friant-Millerton area as a major recreational "area." That is a wording change from major recreational "corridor" in the 2000 plan.

Also, a sentence in the 2000 general plan that read "facilities should include moderately priced multifamily employee housing" is removed in the updated plan.

Reep also points to the county's plans to widen Millerton Road from Friant to Auberry as more evidence that major, urban-style development may be in the works.

Jimenez said there is nothing new in what is being planned for the Friant-Millerton area.

The road widening, he said, has been on the books for years and is proposed for safety purposes — not as urbanization.

He also said Friant-area development has long been on the books, as have basic county land-use policies that push development not just to cities, but unincorporated towns like Friant. Those policies, Jimenez said, have been in place since the 1970s and were continued in the 2000 general plan.

"The county is not looking at developing new town areas like Madera (County)," he said, referring to developments such as Gunner Ranch, proposed for across the San Joaquin River from northwest Fresno. At buildout, it would have 2,840 homes. "That's not on the books right now."

Jimenez said county officials hope to take the update to the supervisors in February.

He said there have been two public meetings, two Fresno County Planning Commission meetings and a few years of hearings and workshops on the plan update. The League of Women Voters, he said, also has provided feedback.

County officials will release the final planned update to the public 45 days before the supervisors' hearing. That should be in early January, Jimenez said.

What supervisors will be asked to approve is a long overdue update — nothing more, he said. And the League of Women Voters has been part of this new document, meeting with the county for the past four to six years.

League of Women Voters officials are skeptical.

"The question is, 'Is this the best way for the county to go?' " Reep asked. "And are people going to know about it when it happens."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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