Air Pollution Trifecta Hits Fresno

This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Community Alliance.

By Kevin Hall

“You can only play by the rules that people give you.” –Henry R. Perea, City of Fresno Planning Commission, Feb. 3, 2021

By Kevin Hall

A trio of life-endangering air pollution events hit Fresno early last month. Unlike the smoke from last summer’s wildfires or this winter’s fireplaces, these threats weren’t found in the air but on paper, behind closed doors, and at media events.

On the first Wednesday in February the city planning commission heard a major industrial rezone proposal for West Fresno. On Thursday of the following week the names were released of a secretly selected panel to lead the Measure C transportation sales tax renewal, and the next day a trio of city council members announced a loosely defined plan for free citywide transit.

Embedded in each of these issues is Fresno’s long history of institutional racism:

  • The Southwest Specific Plan completed in 2017 is an ongoing effort to stop the growth of industrial pollution in West Fresno, but former councilman Henry R. Perea went before the city planning commission seeking to undo 93 acres in the heart of it. 
  • The original Measure C misdirected hundreds of millions of dollars away from inner city and rural communities to build Freeway 168, the White Flight path to Clovis, and community stakeholders, including Labor leader Chuck Riojas, have agreed to a closed door process for “MC3” to extend the tax to the year 2047.
  • And Tyler Maxwell’s proposal for free buses threatens to become an urban-centric cash grab that hurts long-term funding for rural transit users and Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit services countywide. He is joined by Nelson Esparza and Esmeralda Soria as co-sponsors of the notion.

West Fresno Rezone

The City of Fresno is being asked to allow 93 acres of grandfathered warehouses and businesses to regain their previous zoning of light industrial, a little more than three years after unanimous approval of the Southwest Specific Plan. Residents fear increased truck traffic and industrial pollution

“On the broader level, I’m going to ask you to consider this,” Perea ominously told the planning commissioners via Zoom at their Feb. 3 meeting. “We have a new mayor in this city. We have a council that’s working with him and there are different opinions on how this city is going to move forward. And one of them is going to be what type of an industrial base, what type of business community — along with everything else that’s quality of life — we are going to have.”

Community members arguing against the proposal complained they had not received notice of it in advance, particularly the Southwest Specific Plan leaders who led a two-year effort to craft new land use designations throughout the city’s historic dumping ground. They were also stunned to see the rezone attempt come so soon after their volunteer work had concluded and at the hands of a former Democratic officeholder.

When the city council unanimously adopted the plan in December 2017, The Fresno Bee’s Tim Sheehan quoted then-District 3 councilman Oliver Baines: “What this does is lay the foundation for investment in west Fresno,” he said. “It is the single biggest economic development tool that west Fresno has seen in 40 years…And it was driven by the community.”

Perea clearly disagrees. Critics also note that Annalisa Perea’s campaign to replace Soria as the District 1 city council member has raised more than $100,000 as of January 1. At least $28,000 of that came from one major warehouse developer alone, ICC Construction — with $4,000 of that coming through the San Joaquin Valley Latino Leaders PAC which received $5,000 from ICC in December.

“You can only play by the rules that people give you,” the senior Perea, oblivious to his hypocrisy, reminded the people there objecting to the rule change. He gently taunted it would be an “opportunity” for advocates to be heard at City Hall as he pushed for immediate approval.

The commission instead voted to have the applicant meet with the community and come back on March 17, a meeting applicants had sought to avoid and which Perea and District 3 council representative Miguel Arias had not previously worked to create.

Measure C Redux

The Measure C ½-cent transportation sales tax renewal is taking shape behind closed doors for priorities and a spending plan through the year 2047. The 180 East four-lane, now to Centerville, is slated to continue further into the mountains.

When the Fresno County Transportation Authority announced members of the “2022 Measure C Extension Expenditure Plan,” nobody knew about the meeting except its twenty-three members. From Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer and Clovis city council member Lynn Ashbeck, to Lee Ann Eager of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation and Jake Soberal of Bitwise, a coterie of powerful interests are claiming the countywide transportation sales tax decision-making powers all for themselves.

Community interests are supposedly represented by Artie Padilla, formerly of the Christian charitable organization Every Neighborhood Partnership. He’s on the committee representing former Fresno mayor, evangelical Ashley Swearengin’s Central Valley Community Foundation. 

While religious beliefs may have placed some people on this committee more than transportation expertise, it’s all about business for most. Since its inception in 1986, Measure C has been the county’s largest subsidy to sprawl developers and remains controversial for its expenditure plan decision-making process.

After passage the first time, the FCTA was formed and it then named Freeway 168 as its top spending priority, despite pre-election polls showing voters didn’t support it. Measure C backers had removed the freeway from the list of projects shown on the ballot to gain voter support, but used a loophole to later ignore those wishes.

The first renewal effort in 2002 sought to continue prioritizing freeway expansion but was turned back by voters after the “Got Smog? Got Asthma? No on C” campaign of community organizations led by Mary Savala and the League of Women Voters-Fresno.

A 2004 plan resulted in a split of one-third each for freeways, road repair, and alternative transportation. For the 2007-47 extension, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability’s “Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County” should be applied. The committee would do well to read it.

No Free Bus Rides

First-year councilman Maxwell is calling for free bus service throughout Fresno to begin immediately. Soria and Esparza have signed onto what they’re calling the Zero Fare Clean Air Act. In their March 12 announcement they gave no date for introduction at City Hall, but presumably that should come soon with direction to staff.

Danielle Bergstrom, writing for The Fresno Bee’s venture in nonprofit journalism, Fresnoland, captured the dilemma the proposal poses for the FAX system. Fare box receipts are matched 7-to-1 by federal and state sources. Eliminate those and the money must be made up for in cash. Maxwell first suggested having FAX take it from within its own budget, and still calls for $500,000 in cuts, but now would like to use CARES Act relief funds, assuming they’re available:

“After COVID-19 relief funding dries up, unless FAX can find an alternative source of local money — around $5 million to $6 million per year — to match the state grants, it will be losing close to $30 million to $40 million per year,” Barfield said.

Maxwell is cheerily confident the money can be conjured up somewhere. The Bee reported: 

“Maxwell said he is optimistic that whatever revenue is lost from fares can be made up from a combination of savings from eliminating costs associated with fare collection and police patrols for FAX. He’s also depending on public agencies, who currently buy discounted passes, to continue and possibly grow their financial support.”

Maxwell has also eliminated the call for electric buses by 2040 from his original proposal. This might be due to the Regional Transportation Plan’s call for $30 million to be spent on new methane-powered ones. The RTP is the foundational document for all transportation planning and funding. It also determines the Measure C expenditure plan. Maxwell seems oblivious to its existence.

As the RTP begins to lay out the future of transportation investments in Fresno County, Leadership Counsel’s memo reminds — if not warns — staff, stakeholders, and elected officials about the importance of prioritizing the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.

Their Guiding Principles For a Just and Equitable Transportation System in Fresno County are:

  1. Promote  Environmental Justice Principles
  2. Address Transportation Injustice
  3. Equitably Invest Public Dollars
  4. Prioritize Racial Justice in Plan Development
  5. Community-driven Solutions and Plans 
  6. Reach California’s Climate Change Goals

The cumulative impacts of these three air pollution issues of the Perea rezone, Measure C secrecy, and Maxwell’s unfunded transit policy must be considered together. Leadership Counsel has provided the guiding document that all should apply to their decisions.

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