Perea to LAFCO: Rethink Fresno’s eastward sprawl
Fresno’s eastern flank was expected to become the next big urban front: 14 square miles of homes, schools, shopping and entertainment stretched between Clovis and Malaga near the city’s southern tip.
But the plan, known as the Southeast Growth Area, or SEGA, has had its share of challenges over the years, some of which have left doubts about its future. The latest protest is from the county.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea says the city’s decision in April to steer future development toward the city center throws cold water on eastern expansion. Perea wants the eastern outskirts, much of it farmland, to largely remain within the county’s rural jurisdiction.
Wednesday at the meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission, Perea plans to ask that the expansion be reconsidered, or scaled back significantly. He is one of five governing members of the agency responsible for setting city-county boundaries.
“The question is: Does SEGA make sense anymore for the city of Fresno?” Perea said. “I think it makes more sense for us to put the land back into ag.”
City leaders concede that SEGA no longer is Fresno’s exclusive frontier for growth. A community debate this spring about the city’s next 25 years convinced City Hall that development should focus on infill instead of sprawl.
Also, housing proposals are emerging on the city’s western edge, and some developers have begun eyeing Madera County across the San Joaquin River.
But all this doesn’t mean the city should just walk away from SEGA, city leaders say.
“We’re planning for a city 50 or 75 years out,” said Keith Bergthold, assistant planning director and a champion of the eastern expansion. “It’s really about a balanced long-term strategy that combines infill and growth areas.”
While the decade-old vision of SEGA has not moved as quickly as some had hoped — the weak economy is a major reason — the plan is going forward.
The city has spent close to $3 million on planning, according to City Council members. And at least a handful of developers own or have optioned land on the city’s eastern side in anticipation of development there, including Bonadelle Neighborhoods and Granville Homes.
Several developers didn’t want to talk much about SEGA’s future, but Mike Prandini of the California Building Industry Association said a decision to reconsider would not go over well at this point.
“The development community has relied on that plan to make development decisions,” said Prandini, executive officer of the association’s regional chapter.
Demand still there?
Fresno’s commitment to SEGA was cemented in May 2009 when LAFCO agreed to put 9,000 acres of county land into the city’s sphere of influence. In the world of government, that is the first step toward annexation, when a city can start planning for sewer, water, schools and other logistics.
The move followed years of talk about a master-planned community, generally east of Temperance Avenue, that can accommodate 100,000 residents. The development would provide not only housing but work opportunities coupled with parks, shopping districts, community centers and public transportation.
Both the county and city — including Supervisor Perea, who sat on the City Council then — agreed to the concept in 2003.
But Perea and other county leaders note that things have changed.
Because of the recession, the demand for housing is down. City population projections have been scaled back: a decade ago, the city was expecting to hit 790,000 residents by 2025, while now that number isn’t anticipated until after 2035.
And the city has started targeting other areas for development.
“Aggressive expansion may be problematic for the city in the current economic climate,” Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said. “I do believe they took this (eastern) sphere out too far and too fast.”
One issue for the county, say Poochigian and others, is that landowners on the eastern edge have started acting like the city already has acquired the property. Many growers, they say, have discontinued farming and focused their efforts elsewhere. Some residents, they add, have been reluctant to make improvements to their homes or businesses.
“I think there’s a lot more blight now,” Poochigian said. “The minute that land gets into the city’s sphere, everybody’s mentality changes.”
The Fresno County Farm Bureau has reservations about the city displacing rural land. And City Council Members Andreas Borgeas and Lee Brand commissioned a report last year that bucked City Hall’s position that SEGA was the perfect plan for Fresno.
The report criticized the proposed development for demanding too much water, requiring too much city investment and employing poorly chosen consultants during its inception.
Today, the two council members say they stand behind a revised version of the project.
“Our goal was never to say get rid of SEGA and give it back to the county,” Brand said. “It was simply to point out the realities and flaws.”
Whether Perea could get the LAFCO votes he would need to undo SEGA or shrink it remains unclear.
Supervisor Susan Anderson, who also sits on the agency’s governing board, says she is on the fence about the idea, and two of the three other board members are hand-picked city representatives. The fifth member is appointed by the other commission members.
LAFCO’s executive officer Jeff Witte, not a member of the governing board, says revoking decisions about spheres of influence is rare. But, he adds, the economic turmoil of the past few years also is rare and could warrant unprecedented action.
At LAFCO’s monthly meeting scheduled for Wednesday, city planners are expected to report on the progress of SEGA.
No decisions about the project are expected this week, but Fresno City Manager Mark Scott said he recently has heard Perea’s concerns and he is willing to talk.
“We agree entirely with the county that this area needs to be preserved as long as we can preserve it,” Scott said.
While Scott intends to move forward with SEGA, he and Council Members Brand and Borgeas are looking at a more gradual rollout.
Through 2035, only 11,500 of some 45,000 total housing units would be built, according to recent proposals. (More housing is being planned on the city’s western edge during this time.) SEGA development would begin within the next few years with subdivisions mostly north of McKinley Avenue and inch southward.
Moving ahead with construction south of McKinley, according to a 2003 city-county agreement, is contingent upon the city completing 60% of the housing it committed to building within the city limits a decade ago.
City officials say they’re not there yet, but they’re close.
“SEGA is a ways out,” Brand said. “It will still be the expansion area but probably 25 years later than was originally thought.”
Fresno’s future growth
According to Fresno’s draft General Plan update, the city anticipates adding about 76,000 housing units through 2035:
Infill outside downtown: 23,500
West growth: 17,000
Southeast growth: 11,500
Southwest growth: 10,500
Governing board members of the Fresno County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO:
Chairman Armando Lopez: Parlier mayor, city representative
Chair Pro Tem Robert Silva: Mendota mayor, city representative
Susan Anderson: Fresno County supervisor
Henry Perea: Fresno County supervisor
Mario Santoyo:Friant Water Authority assistant general manager, public member
By Kurtis Alexander