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Residents sue city over industrial site in their neighborhood

A group of southwest Fresno residents and their advocates gathered Thursday, March 1, in front of the B.F. Sisk Courthouse in downtown Fresno, where they have filed suit to block plans for an industrial park in their neighborhood.
A group of southwest Fresno residents and their advocates gathered Thursday, March 1, in front of the B.F. Sisk Courthouse in downtown Fresno, where they have filed suit to block plans for an industrial park in their neighborhood.

Residents worried about a proposed industrial park in their southwest Fresno neighborhood are asking a judge to overturn the city council's January approval of a development permit for the project.

South Central Neighbors United filed a lawsuit on Feb. 23 in Fresno Superior Court, a month after the city council unanimously voted to approve a development permit for developer Richard Caglia and Caglia Environmental for a 110-acre industrial park on the north side of Central Avenue between Orange and Cedar avenues.

The site is currently vacant but has been zoned for heavy industrial purposes for more than 30 years. Already under construction on the west side of Orange Avenue, across the street from the Caglia site, is a new Amazon order-filling center that is more than 855,000 square feet; just beyond that is a new 670,500-square-foot Ulta Beauty warehouse.

The lawsuit alleges that the city did not fully evaluate the potential environmental effects that the project would have on nearby residents, including families that live on the south side of Central Avenue. "The project would operate directly across the street from a residential community that already bears a disproportionate burden of environmental and public health impacts from industrial warehouses and distribution centers, hazardous and solid waste sites, and other noxious development in Fresno," the complaint states.

Attorneys for the residents have said they believe the project requires an environmental impact report to fully comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

Residents and advocacy groups rallied in the rain outside the B.F. Sisk Courthouse in downtown Fresno on Thursday to call attention to the lawsuit. "The city has not studied the imminent impacts of this project to our community," said Daniel Macias, who lives near the Caglia site. "These actions have left us no choice but to join in a lawsuit."

"We want to be heard and to move in a positive direction," said another resident, Katie Taylor. "We are not just fighting for ourselves, but also for our kids."

The suit contends that the city failed to ensure that the industrial park complies with the city's General Plan, updated in late 2014, and with the Roosevelt Community Plan. It also alleges that the city failed to comply with its municipal code before approving the development permit.

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A site plan filed by consultants for Caglia indicates that the property could include up to seven buildings amounting to more than 2 million square feet. The most likely uses would be warehouses and distribution centers, which are allowed in industrial zones with the approval of a development permit.

Information provided to the city indicates that the round-the-clock operation of the industrial park would generate almost 6,300 car and truck trips each day. "That's going to be about four trips a minute directly in front of residents' homes," said Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, representing the residents. "This is an area that's been identified as among the most burdened in pollution in the entire state, so adding this impact to air quality without adequate mitigation is putting residents at risk."

But traffic and its associated pollution is only one concern. Some families in the area outside the Fresno city limits rely on domestic wells for water. They fear that if the city needs to build a new well to serve the Caglia project and other development, it could affect the water table from which their wells pump, "and many wells in the area have gone dry during the drought," Werner said.

Caglia Environmental also owns the site of the former Orange Avenue Landfill just north of the would-be industrial park, giving rise to worries about hazardous materials, Werner said. "There has been no soil testing to see if there is any contamination in the soil that would be disturbed during construction," she added.

City leaders declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit, citing a policy not to discuss current legal actions against the city. "But we can say the last two times this group and their affiliates have represented similar lawsuits against the city, they were dismissed," Mayor Lee Brand said in a written statement.

"These kinds of lawsuits are frivolous and a waste of taxpayer money, costing the taxpayers of the city of Fresno hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend," Brand added. "More importantly, they attempt to roadblock and delay much-needed projects that would bring jobs and improve the quality of life for the very people they claim to represent."

In January, City Attorney Doug Sloan told the council that an environmental-impact report conducted for the citywide General Plan update in 2014, as well as an abbreviated study of the Caglia project, provided the necessary analysis of the effects of industrial zoning for the area. It concluded that whatever problems that occur can be reduced to insignificant levels by setting conditions with which Caglia must comply.

Werner said that while her organization has represented residents in other issues challenging city policies, this is the first time it's been involved in a lawsuit based on the California Environmental Quality Act. "As far as this case, we feel there is a strong case that the city's environmental review is completely inadequate," she said. "This is a huge project, and it's unheard of in the CEQA world … to attempt to do a project of this enormity" without a full environmental report.

The suit is asking that a judge order the city to abandon its Jan. 25 approval of the development permit and issue an injunction to prevent the city or Caglia from moving forward on the project until a full environmental review is conducted and measures taken to offset any negative effects on neighbors.

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