You are hereCity, county in tug-of-war over proposed development

City, county in tug-of-war over proposed development

Posted at 08:25 PM on Saturday, Jan. 08, 2011

When it comes to development, the city and county of Fresno have been going at it like the Hatfields and McCoys since the end of World War II.

Every so often, they call a truce, proclaim that a new era of collaboration has dawned and promise to embrace smart planning concepts until death do they part.

Peace never lasts because it can't. Like crackheads chasing the next fix, both governments renew the battle over new projects and tax revenues.

And now the county is staring at a whale: an upscale retirement community on 942 acres of picturesque grazing land on the east side of Friant Road.

Land owner Frank Bigelow -- a Madera County supervisor -- has pitched Friant Ranch for more than 10 years. Finally, it goes to the Board of Supervisors for approval Feb. 1.

As drawn up by a top-drawer Newport Beach planning company, the latest version calls for 2,100 to 2,900 residential units, hundreds of acres of preserved open space, trails and a village center providing shopping, jobs and recreation just south of the town of Friant.

Besides tax revenues, another carrot dangles before the supervisors: Approving the project would enable the cash-strapped county to remake unincorporated Friant, which has fewer than 800 residents and is in dire need of basic infrastructure.

If you're a supervisor, Friant Ranch probably appears irresistible -- never mind the promises to direct future growth toward cities, hand-wringing about air quality and pronouncements about preserving farmland.

Wait, there's more.

The grazing land has environmental challenges -- including vernal pools, fairy shrimp and California tiger salamander.

Water would come from Millerton Lake by way of a deal between the developers and the Lower Tule River Irrigation District. Sewage would be handled by a to-be-built water-treatment plant -- with treated water, at some times of year, dumped into the San Joaquin River. Not that the developers want to, but apparently this would be unavoidable.

Environmental groups, including Revive the San Joaquin, are aghast. They point out that taxpayers and farmers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on restoring the river and bringing back salmon runs.

But in the final Environmental Impact Report, county planners agree with the developer's experts. They say, don't worry, there are ways to make most everything fine and dandy at Mitigation Ranch.

Not unexpectedly, the city of Fresno opposes Friant Ranch. In a letter to the county, city officials say that the project "involves a huge expansion of urban growth" where it doesn't belong and violates "fundamental principles of the County and City General Plans and Memorandums of Understanding between the county and [its] cities."

Unsaid by the city: Our planners and council members would sign off on this in a heartbeat if Mr. Bigelow had grazing land anywhere inside our sprawling limits.

Every 10 years or so, our elected officials draw a line in the sand and say they're not crossing it. Then they cross it, triggering a rush to the latest in a line of Promised Lands (most of which have "Ranch" in their names these days).

Growth can benefit cities and counties tremendously. But smart people don't keep repeating the mistakes of the past, which are visible in abundance all over this city and the county. Smart people figure out that growth must be sustainable. That is to say, the benefits should endure -- or at least last longer than a firecracker.

Is Friant Ranch the right project at the right time?

Doubt that the supervisors will think much about that. Their budget is leaking, and a whale has approached the boat.

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