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Can South Fresno Have Both Environmental Justice and New Industrial Jobs? Bonta Says …

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Social justice groups oppose a Fresno industrial park that would bring high-paying jobs, but state AG Rob Bonta compromise is possible. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)
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Will Oliver, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., says it’s no secret that a lack of available land has pushed away advanced manufacturing companies looking to come to Fresno.

“I believe it’s a false choice that you can’t have jobs and environmental justice. You can have both. We should be ambitious enough to fight for both.” — California Attorney General Rob Bonta

“Without (available land) it inhibits our ability to attract new businesses that can enable economic diversification, increased wage growth, and access to healthcare and benefits,” Oliver said. “It goes hand in hand to ensure a healthy jobs-housing balance for the region.”

The 7.2% July unemployment rate in Fresno County clocks in at 50% higher than the state average. California’s $35 average pay outpaces Fresno’s $27 average hourly rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the average entry-level manufacturing wage at $23 — $8 an hour above the minimum wage.

Manufacturing jobs create jobs in other sectors with the need for materials, Oliver said. Many manufacturing jobs pay well without requiring a college degree.

But major manufacturers have looked to other areas to open in recent years.

Ace Hardware located its 400-job distribution center in Visalia’s bourgeoning industrial park. AutoZone’s 280-job distribution center opened in Chowchilla. Both companies also looked at Fresno, according to sources.

To open new land, Fresno County officials turned their eyes to nearly 3,000 acres of largely agricultural land in south Fresno for development.

At one corner, the proposed land butts up to the community of Malaga. Pollution has long afflicted people in the area. Attorney General Rob Bonta said Malaga has been abused for decades.

Watch: CA Attorney General on: Parent’s Rights, Fresno growth, & Running for Governor

And, before the county has called its Business Industrial Campus a plan, environmental groups and the attorney general have set their sights on the proposal, threatening litigation before the project is even on the table.

“If choices are made that are unlawful, it’s our job to enforce the law and yes, we will get involved,” Bonta said in a news conference Tuesday. “The thing that angers me the most is when people who have power use that power to hurt folks who have less power.”

Community groups fear truck traffic in Malaga and Calwa will increase. However, industrial development codes first done in Fontana, California, could minimize impacts. (GV Wire File)

Business Campus Left Out of General Plan Update

Currently, the area is no more than a “study area.” The county spent $1 million on two studies to examine what it would take to develop the land, said Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau.

The Business Campus won’t be discussed until after the General Plan Update is approved, which may be in December, Brandau said.

Being largely agricultural land, the land has no electrical or water connections. County officials needed to know what it would cost to install infrastructure such as transmission lines, sewer and water lines, and water treatment plants, Brandau said.

Unlike other industrial areas, the only nearby community is Malaga, at the northwest corner of the map. Within map boundaries are about 50 homes, mostly on farmland, said Brandau.

At the same time, the county needs to update its general plan. A general plan outlines how land should be used so it benefits the public. Every few years, planners release updates. But before it can be approved, the public gets a chance to comment.

Environmental Groups Say Area ‘Off Limits’ for a Business Campus

In a 26-page response to the general plan update, a letter from Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability says industrial development near Malaga, Calwa, and south central Fresno should be “completely off limits.”

“The communities of Malaga, Calwa, and South Central Fresno are already overburdened ranking in the top 1% of census tracts of the most overburdened areas, and yet this Special Study Area will be located only 1/2 mile east of Malaga,” the letter stated.

LCJA also signed onto a lawsuit against Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration for two interchange upgrades on Highway 99 at American and North avenues, near the Business Campus. Community members said the interchanges — long deemed unsafe by experts — would encourage more truck traffic in the area.

LCJA was also directly involved in a settlement from developer G4 Enterprises that built a distribution warehouse in south central Fresno. A $300,000 fund provided double-pane windows and air filtration to homes in the area.

Email requests made to LCJA to comment for this story were not returned.

In his own March 2022 letter to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors about the Business Campus, Bonta said the policy “appears inconsistent with race discrimination in housing laws.”

“‘Locating new industrial sites’ in Malaga and Calwa would knowingly add to the recognized environmental and health problems faced by residents,” Bonta said.

At this week’s news conference, Bonta said buffer zones, air filters, and electrification can mitigate damage from industrial companies.

“With appropriate doable mitigation measures, buffers or on-site electrification, air filters, you can provide support and assurances to disadvantaged environmental justice communities,” Bonta said.

Fresno Officials Look to Inland Empire for Industrial Model

Supervisors took a trip to Fontana in San Bernardino County to meet with city officials about what they did to satisfy the attorney general’s requirements for industrial development.

In 2021, the Sierra Club and the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition reached out to the attorney general’s office about a proposed 205,000-square-foot warehouse project. That year, Bonta sued the city, challenging the project’s approval.

The next year, the city settled the suit, developing city-wide mitigation measures to decrease pollution. The city came up with a plan outlining rules such as what roads trucks could drive on and how long they could idle at warehouses. It also mandated that companies plant trees to cut down on pollution and sound. Buffer zones separate residential areas from industrial development.

Bonta praised the plan, calling it a model for future development.

“The City of Fontana has adopted the most stringent environmental standards in California for new warehouse projects,” Bonta said in a 2022 news release. “This ordinance should serve as a model for other local governments across the state to build upon.”

Supervisors say they want to exceed the Fontana standards.

In addition, Bonta said job development and environmental justice can happen at the same time.

“I believe it’s a false choice that you can’t have jobs and environmental justice. You can have both. We should be ambitious enough to fight for both,” Bonta said.

Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.