San Joaquin Valley residents received welcome news this week when the National Park Service allowed Fresno's Chaffee Zoo to proceed with a project that will create a 13-acre African savanna.
The African Adventure will be home to lions, elephants, cheetahs, rhinos and meerkats. Construction on this important phase in the zoo's development could begin within a month.
The Africa project will be paid for out of Measure Z, the voter-approved one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax in Fresno County. The zoo tax has already 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.
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The latest project had been delayed because a more detailed environmental impact report was needed, and then a handful of residents filed a lawsuit, which was eventually dismissed. It also took more than a year to get 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.
The National Park Service's 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 Park Service. "This was really an obstacle that we had to address before we could proceed," said John Valentino, who chairs the Chaffee Zoo corporation. "It's resolved in a way that's exactly how we hoped and allows us to develop."
Measure Z has kept its promise to voters of developing a first-class zoo, although a few naysayers filed suit and threw up other roadblocks that delayed projects and drove up their costs. There is still much work to do on this Valley treasure.
But the spirit of Measure Z remains alive, and that should be helpful when zoo officials go back to the voters next year for approval to extend the zoo sales tax. That would allow the zoo to build an 8- to 9-acre addition, and add crocodiles, bring back hippos and expand existing areas, adding to South American, Asian and Australian species, said Zoo Director Scott Barton.
The zoo has prospered under Measure Z and it's best days are ahead as the facility expands in just the way voters intended.