South Fresno industrial complex wins City Council approval

Plans for a new 110-acre industrial park in south Fresno were backed by the Fresno City Council on Thursday, despite concerns by social justice advocates about the potential effects it could have on traffic and air quality in the area.

On a 7-0 vote, the council denied an appeal by the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Faith in Fresno and other advocacy groups that wanted the city to overturn a development permit for Caglia Environmental. The company proposes to develop a cluster of concrete buildings that could eventually include up to 2.1 million square feet of floor space on the north side of Central Avenue between Cedar and Orange avenues. The site, which is zoned for heavy industrial use, is across Orange Avenue from a new Amazon order-filling warehouse that is under construction and expected to open this summer. Also nearby is a new distribution warehouse for Ulta Beauty.

The city’s Development and Resource Management Department approved such a permit last fall, based on the Fresno General Plan and land-use rules. The Fresno Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the permit after a Dec. 20 hearing.

The approval of the project came after several Central Avenue residents and others asked the council to postpone a decision and do more environmental studies on the possible traffic and noise effects of trucks going to and from the industrial park, as well as disruption to the area during construction.

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.

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.

“I’m concerned because our neighborhood has a lot of members that suffer a disproportionately high rate of illnesses  ,” said Daniel Macias, who lives across the street from the site. “I don’t know what to attribute it to, but I know there’s a landfill that’s been there for years.

“Have we done enough in-depth studies to ensure we don’t make our situation worse than it is?” he added. “We understand the need for the city’s progress, but not at our expense.”

Others spoke about the lack of notice to neighbors about the project’s progress. “They have a right to understand what’s going up in their community,” said Mary Curry, a leader in the west Fresno community.

Another west Fresno leader, the Rev. B.T. Lewis, submitted a letter to the council acknowledging the balance between the project’s importance for building jobs and the needs of the nearby residents. “We all want jobs in our city,” Lewis wrote. “However, our desire for new development must be tempered with concern for neighbors and equity for them.”

But City Attorney Doug Sloan advised council members that the property has been zoned for industrial uses for more than 30 years, and that the city can rely on an environmental impact report that was done for a new citywide General Plan adopted in 2014 that included an analysis of the industrial zoning for the south Fresno area.

Councilman Oliver Baines, whose District 3 includes the industrial park site, said he was sympathetic to residents’ concerns. “I get the opposition to industrial next to residential communities,” he said. “But this area that you all are talking about has been zoned as industrial since the ’80s.  This area is zoned for this use (and) that zoning is not going to change.  We’re not granting this development anything that hasn’t already been granted since the ’80s.”

Councilman Steve Brandau, who represents northwest Fresno, seconded Baines’ motion to approve the project, and had stern words for the Leadership Counsel organization. “They are ‘poverty pimps,’ ” he said. “They play to people’s fears. They come down here constantly now standing in the way of the very thing these folks need,” a reference to jobs at the industrial park.

Ashley Werner, an attorney for Leadership Counsel, was not given an opportunity to respond to Brandau’s blast. After the vote, she said she disagrees with Sloan’s assessment that the city does not need to do a detailed environmental assessment of the project. She added that residents have the option of challenging the city’s decision in court under the California Environmental Quality Act, but stopped short of saying whether she expected litigation to be filed.

Richard Caglia of Caglia Environmental said he was pleased at the council’s approval. “I’m relieved that we get to go forward, and I think that’s to the benefit of the greater part of the city of Fresno,” he said.

The city’s economic development director, Larry Westerlund, said approval of the Caglia project is “vital” to help bring potentially thousands of jobs to Fresno and reduce an unemployment rate that is double the statewide average. “When we get companies that come in and look at Fresno, we have to have shovel-ready property available,” he said. “Having this business park ready to go is important.”