Attorney General intervenes in southwest Fresno residents' lawsuit on industrial park

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.

California's Attorney General's Office is intervening in a lawsuit filed by southwest Fresno residents against the city of Fresno for an industrial park that residents say could pose a hazard from increased traffic and pollution.

Deputy attorney generals for Xavier Becerra's office filed a motion to intervene last week seeking relief for the residents. The residents, a group called South Central Neighbors United, seek a mandate voiding the Fresno City Council's approval of the project and issuing an injunction to prevent the city or developer from moving forward on the project until a full environmental review is conducted and measures are taken to offset any negative effects on neighbors.

"We thank the Attorney General for taking this step to ensure that our voices are heard and that our community benefits from the protection of the state’s environmental laws," Katie Taylor, a resident of South Central Neighbors United, said in a statement. "Like all Fresno residents, we deserve clean air to breathe and water to drink in our homes and a healthy neighborhood for our children to grow up in."

Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which represents the residents, said the AG's involvement reinforces her clients' views.

"They have very legitimate and urgent concerns on the impacts of this project on their neighborhoods and health concerns that the city really needs to look at seriously," she said.

It remains unclear what the Attorney General's Office's involvement means for the project.

City officials typically don't comment on pending litigation. In this case, however, city officials said in a statement that a response is necessary for "public interest."

"We are aware of the Attorney General’s interest in this litigation and are actively working with the community on a solution," the statement reads.

The Attorney General's Office said in a statement that its action was part of its new environmental justice bureau, noting the Attorney General has independent authority to protect public health and the environment.

"This case is part of the Attorney General’s ongoing commitment to protecting low-income, disadvantaged communities that have historically borne the brunt of industrial pollution," the statement says. "The industrial project which is the subject of the lawsuit is proposed to be located in a community suffering from high pollution. However, the facility was approved without adequate study of how the massive facility, including the 7,000 daily truck and automobile trips it will attract, will impact the local residents and schoolchildren attending the nearby elementary school."

The Fresno City Council in January approved developer Richard Caglia and Caglia Environmental's permit for a 110-acre industrial park on the north side of Central Avenue between Orange and Cedar avenues. The vacant site was zoned for heavy industrial purposes for more than 30 years. The Amazon fulfillment center, nearing completion, is located on the west side of Orange Avenue, across the street from the Caglia site. The Ulta Beauty warehouse is just beyond the Amazon site.

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

The lawsuit alleges that the city did not fully evaluate the potential environmental effects that the project would have on nearby residents, including families who 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.

Plaintiffs who file lawsuits based on the California Environmental Quality Act are required to notify the Attorney General's Office, Werner said. Becerra's office further researched the claim since her office filed its notice, she said.

The Leadership Counsel previously has drawn sharp criticism from city officials. When the council approved the project, Councilman Steve Brandau called the organization "poverty pimps" during the council's public meeting.

"They play to people's fears. They come down here constantly now standing in the way of the very thing these folks need," he said, referencing jobs at the industrial park.

After the group of residents filed their lawsuit, Mayor Lee Brand said similar lawsuits filed by the Leadership Counsel were dismissed, calling them "frivolous and a waste of taxpayer money."

The lawsuit was on the council's closed session agenda last week. Werner said her clients are waiting to hear back from the city on any possible decisions.

A judge has not made a ruling in the case, but a case management conference is scheduled for Aug. 1.

Brianna Calix: 559-441-6166, @BriannaCalix