Clovis News

Stop SE Fresno plan, 2 council members say

Fresno City Hall should stop working on an ambitious growth plan for Southeast Fresno because it is proving to be $3 million of wasted effort, two City Council members said Monday in a report.

Instead, Council Members Lee Brand and Andreas Borgeas said the city should focus on a master plan for the area west of Highway 99, site of much of Fresno's recent housing growth. No such master plan currently exists.

The City Council's Finance and Audit Committee on Monday adopted the report that recommends sweeping changes to planning for the Southeast Growth Area, referred to by some as SEGA.

The committee, composed of Brand, Borgeas and Council Member Blong Xiong, voted to send the report to the full council for consideration on Thursday.

Blong said little about the report, other than that it should be forwarded to the full council.

City Manager Mark Scott said he hasn't had time to read the report, which fills a three-ring binder. Scott said he probably will ask the council to postpone a vote until he and his staff can respond in writing.

The report says:

Work on the Southeast growth plan should be suspended after drafts of the environmental impact report are completed, expected sometime later this year.

The city's sole-source contract with Calthorpe Associates, the high-profile planning consultant hired to develop the plan, violated a city rule on such contracts and should have been put out to bid.

The Southeast Growth Area doesn't have enough water to serve the 100,000 or more residents expected to live there, and development there would chew up too much valuable farmland.

After Monday's meeting, Brand and Borgeas said planning for "smart growth" is important, but SEGA is too much planning too soon for an area that is unlikely to see development for decades.

"We spent a lot of time and a lot of money on a plan that we think has significant flaws," Brand said.

Borgeas said the city's well-intentioned planning staff became too enamored with an idealistic vision that lost sight of the city's fiscal and growth realities.

Both council members said the work on SEGA won't be a complete waste -- the city can use the information when it updates its general plan.

Council Member Sal Quintero, who represents southeast Fresno, said he, too, wants time to read the report.

Quintero said there are many unanswered questions, such as whether SEGA is too far along to stop now and whether the area west of Highway 99 is better suited for major growth than southeast Fresno.

"There are two sides to every story," Quintero said.

SEGA is a still-unfinished blueprint to create a master-planned community for more than 100,000 people. The 9,000 acres are at the southeast corner of the city's sphere of influence.

The committee held several hearings late last year that crackled with tension.

Borgeas and Brand questioned whether the city misspent nearly $3 million on a plan whose work seemed to drag on and whose value to a cash-strapped city was vastly overstated.

SEGA supporters, who included city staff members, said the plan would be a practical template for better planning throughout the city.

City officials have known for decades that Fresno, hemmed in by the San Joaquin River to the north and Clovis to the northeast, would have to grow elsewhere.

In 2006, the council, then-Mayor Alan Autry and city planning officials decided the southeast area was the future.

SEGA, 14 square miles mostly east of Temperance Avenue and north of Jensen Avenue, was to be the essence of a well-ordered community: houses, apartments, businesses, schools, libraries, restaurants, entertainment, roads, public transportation, bikeways and trails.

But since 2006, the economy nose-dived, wrecking the local housing market and raising questions about who could afford to live in a project expected to require hundreds of millions of dollars in resident-funded streets, parks and sewers.

In 2009, Borgeas and Brand joined the council and soon developed a skeptical view of the planning department's passion for SEGA and a frustration with what they viewed as Mayor Ashley Swearengin's unwillingness to share financial information on the project.