Is industrial park planned near Amazon, Ulta sites a case of need for jobs vs. filthy air?

Social justice advocates are concerned about how a proposed industrial park in south Fresno will affect nearby residents and a school.
Social justice advocates are concerned about how a proposed industrial park in south Fresno will affect nearby residents and a school. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

Social justice advocates fear a new industrial park near the Amazon and Ulta distribution warehouses in south Fresno pose a hazard to nearby residents from increased traffic and pollution.

Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability is being joined by Faith in Fresno, Fresno Building Healthy Communities and others in asking the Fresno City Council on Thursday to overturn the approval of a 110-acre proposal by Caglia Environmental on Central Avenue between Cedar and Orange avenues.

The city’s Development and Resource Management department approved the project last fall, based on the Fresno General Plan and land-use rules. The property is zoned for heavy industrial.

Plans filed with the city indicate the industrial park would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and result in an average of almost 6,300 vehicle trips – trucks and cars – daily.

Ashley Werner, an attorney for the Leadership Counsel, said she represents residents who live across Central Avenue from the site, as well as other neighbors, including residents of Flamingo Mobil Home Lodge, just over a half-mile to the east at Central Avenue and Highway 99. Werner said residents did not receive notice about the project or have a chance to weigh in on its potential effects.

“This is an enormous project, more than 2 million square feet, and it will generate more than 6,200 truck and car trips a day,” Werner said. “The residents feel they should be involved in the review.”

Werner said her organization and the others are concerned about the increased traffic and the air pollution that will be generated, particularly when combined with trucks and traffic coming to and from the nearby Amazon and Ulta Beauty warehouses to the west. Orange Center Elementary School, just west of the Ulta construction site, might also have to contend with traffic impacts from the collection of projects.

A site plan filed by consultants for Caglia indicates the project would include up to seven buildings and be configured in a range from about 155,000 square feet to more than 1 million square feet. No tenants have been identified, but city officials said the most likely uses would be warehouse and distribution centers – businesses allowed “by right” under the industrial zoning with approval of a development permit.

Though the property is zoned for heavy industrial uses in the latest version of the city’s General Plan adopted in 2014 – and has been since 1984 under the previous general plan – Werner said the overall environmental impact report for the plan does not adequately address the effects of a full build-out of the industrial area. A much more abbreviated analysis of the Caglia project concluded that whatever impacts that occur t can be reduced to insignificant levels by a series of conditions with which the developer must comply.

But that, Werner said, simply isn’t good enough. “This is being placed in a community that is among the most environmentally burdened in the state,” Werner said of the south Fresno census tract, citing information from the state Environmental Protection Agency. “The environmental review fails to fully analyze the effects on the communities immediately surrounding it.”

Werner and the other organizations offered similar objections to the Fresno Planning Commission, which unanimously recommended approval of the project after a Dec. 20 hearing. Werner said she hopes the council will lend a more sympathetic ear to the concerns and at least hold off on approving the industrial park.

“This council has not demonstrated a lot of concern or leadership for environmental health considerations or local hire considerations,” she said Tuesday. “But our hope is that the city decides not to make a final decision to go forward on Thursday, to take a break and talk to residents about the effects on their neighborhood.”

“If the mayor is going to be aggressive about pursuing facilities like this, he needs to be equally aggressive about seeking solutions to reduce the negative impacts on air quality,” she added.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, in Washington D.C. this week for the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said he believes the advocates are misguided in their objections. “Where were (they) when Ulta and Amazon came up” last year, Brand said. “We didn’t hear a peep from (them) over those.”

“When we did the new General Plan, the master environmental impact report included this area as heavy industrial and was extensively studied,” he added. “Everyone was noticed at that time.  Now there’s this 2.1 million square feet, and it’s by right development unless it exceeds the standards of that General Plan.”

When a new Southwest Specific Plan was approved last year, Brand said the plans were changed at the behest of advocates to remove several hundred acres of industrial zoning in favor of directing heavier industrial uses to the east, into a triangle bounded roughly by Highways 41 and 99 and Central Avenue. “They said, ‘This is where we want industrial to go.’ These groups signed onto the southwest plan.”

Brand said the advocates are overlooking the importance of jobs that the industrial park will create. “We believe this park, once it’s built out, will have about 3,000 employees,” he said. Between working with the county’s Welfare to Work program and the Fresno County Economic Development Corp. to train people for distribution center jobs, “the people who never get employed will have opportunities like anyone else to get jobs there that will change their lives.”

Said the mayor: “The poor need advocates, but they need to choose their battles, and this isn’t the right battle to pick. These advocates are empowered by poverty. My job is to get people out of poverty. This is an opportunity to get people out of generational poverty.”

If you go

What: Hearing on city approval for new industrial park

When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Fresno City Hall, City Council chambers