Fresno County’s failed housing, land use compliance is discriminatory, says suit

Ruben Luna of Cantua Creek examines bottled water when it was delivered in Cantua Creek and El Porvenir last year.
Ruben Luna of Cantua Creek examines bottled water when it was delivered in Cantua Creek and El Porvenir last year. mbenjamin@fresnobee.com

A lawsuit filed recently in Fresno County Superior Court has accused county officials of discriminating against low-income residents of color by failing to execute key updates and programs regarding state housing laws and local land use polices.

Filed last week by the organization Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability on behalf of the residents, the suit seeks a mandate for the county to comply with its general plan land use element and housing element programs.

It also calls for the county to cease discrimination against the residents, who are calling themselves Comunidades Unidas por un Cambio (Communities United for Change).

Many of the group’s members are Latinos living in disadvantaged, unincorporated communities such as Lanare, Cantua Creek, Calwa, the neighborhood around Jane Addams Elementary in the city and other neighborhoods in south Fresno.

The county, however, disagrees with the allegations made in the suit, saying updates to the general plan already are in motion.

Residents say they have met with county staff and county supervisors multiple times in the past, asking for basic services such as safe drinking water, sidewalks, street lighting, storm water drainage and affordable housing.

Leadership Counsel says it has submitted multiple comment letters to the county on behalf of residents, informing county officials of duties and responsibilities outlined by laws and policy documents.

Ashley Werner, a senior attorney for Leadership Counsel, said residents have been met with “total resistance and opposition” to requests. “As long as these communities have existed, residents and community leaders have brought it to the attention of county decision makers that the communities lack infrastructure and affordable housing,” she said.

Jordan Scott, Fresno County public information officer, said in an email on Thursday the county just received the complaint.

“The county is disappointed at this action by the Leadership Counsel and its co-plaintiffs given the county is currently in the midst of a revision of the general plan that will include elements that address the purported concerns of the plaintiffs,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, we are unable to provide further comment on this matter at this time.”

The county currently is in the early stages of reviewing its general plan and updating a decades-old zoning ordinance. The first draft documents are scheduled to be released for public review later this month.

Werner said the general plan review won’t address all of the issues raised in the lawsuit, such as community plans that craft future growth and land use.

The lawsuit outlines multiple deadlines the county allegedly missed, by years.

For instance, the county’s housing element adopted in 2016 committed to taking various actions by 2017, such as eliminating barriers for farmworker housing development and seeking funding for community plan updates.

Additionally, the county by the end of 2015 was required to amend the land use element of its general plan to include an analysis of water, wastewater, stormwater and fire protection needs of disadvantaged unincorporated communities.

Since many of the disadvantaged, unincorporated communities in Fresno have large populations of Latinos, the county’s failure to complete those programs and plan updates amounts to discrimination, the lawsuit alleges.

To demonstrate that point, the complaint includes pages of data on Fresno County’s demographics, poverty statistics, composition of unincorporated communities and need for affordable housing.

Brianna Calix covers Fresno’s city government for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable, analyze city policy and inform readers how city hall decisions might affect their lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star.