League, Sierra Club continue campaign to halt Friant Ranch

The Fresno BeeApril 19, 2014 

Two public-interest groups are making a final stand in a long legal battle to stop Friant Ranch, a 2,270-home and commercial development that's been approved for the foothills near the San Joaquin River, 10 miles northeast of Fresno.

The League of Women Voters of Fresno and the Sierra Club have filed an appeal with the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, hoping to overturn the Planning Commission's April 10 decision that approved an operating permit for the project's high-tech wastewater treatment plant.

The two groups also will argue their case Tuesday to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno. They contend former Fresno County Superior Court Judge Rosendo Peña erred in December 2012 when he ruled the environmental review for Friant Ranch was mostly sufficient.

Friant Ranch will turn the sleepy town of Friant into a bustling community of homes, shops, restaurants and businesses that cater to retirees. County supervisors approved the project in February 2011 after learning it would create hundreds of jobs and contribute tens of millions of dollars annually to the region's woeful economy during a 10-year construction period.

Only the Sierra Club and League stand in its way.

To satisfy the ruling by Peña, who is now a justice on the Fresno appellate court, Friant Ranch developer Dennis Bacopulos reached an agreement with the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust in February to end one lawsuit. Under the agreement, Friant Ranch will charge a one-time, $500 fee on each home to provide a park fund. That money will be used to restore and maintain recreation projects along the San Joaquin River Parkway.

Then last month, the city of Fresno said it would dismiss its lawsuit against Fresno County for approving Friant Ranch.

In their appeal to the county, the League and Sierra Club want the Board of Supervisors to conduct further review of the wastewater plant's impact on the surrounding environment.

League member Radley Reep said the county's own documents say approval of a permit for the wastewater treatment plant "would be subject to further environmental review." Despite that promise to the public, planning commissioners approved the plant's permit without doing the extended environmental review, he said.

In addition, a recent inquiry by the League unearthed new information about the proposed plant's discharge water, Reep said. While the environmental impact report for the project said in 2011 that seepage from the effluent storage pond would be negligible, new information shows more than 20 million gallons will leak yearly, according to Gary Lasky of the Sierra Club.

The county must require a thorough review of a wastewater treatment facility that will serve thousands of people and be close to a public park and the San Joaquin River, said Nyla Zender, the league's president.

"It's a matter of environmental protection and public safety," Zender said. "The public was promised further environmental analysis by the county, and the Board of Supervisors must deliver on that promise."

Ross Borba Jr., vice chairman of the Planning Commission, said he can't believe "people are still throwing rocks over the fence" three years after the county approved Friant Ranch. He said county staff did the required environmental review for the treatment plant. He also said commissioners listened the league's and Sierra Club's concerns and read the documentation that the two groups gave to them.

"It was a fair hearing," Borba said, noting that audience members had ample time to present their concerns.

"From our point of view, all the I's were dotted and the T's were crossed," Borba said. "It was time to move forward on it."

Bacopulos bristled when told of the continued effort to stall the project.

Further environmental review wasn't needed, he said, because the project hasn't changed in scope or design since it was approved by the county three years ago. In addition, federal, state and local agencies have already thoroughly investigated the environmental concerns and given their OK for the project to move forward, he said.

"Everything we've done has been aboveboard and in public," Bacopulos said.

He and his attorney, Bryan Wagner, also said the wastewater treatment plant, which is about 2,900 feet from the river, will never discharge into the river, and any seepage into the ground will never make it to the river. The discharge also is safe to irrigate agriculture, lawns and playgrounds, they said.

In addition, the plant will replace the existing 250 septic tanks in the area, which have been polluting the environment, they said.

But Reep said the wastewater plant isn't the only issue. League and Sierra Club members are frustrated, he said, because the county hasn't kept them in the loop or followed the rules. "It's a due process issue," he said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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