The Wonderful Company’s fight with the Assemi family over a pistachio processing plant in Tulare County took a hit on Tuesday.
In a unanimous vote, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors tentatively denied Wonderful and billionaire owner Stewart Resnick’s request for an appeal of building permits issued to Assemi-owned Touchstone Pistachio Company to expand a facility.
“This is a simple case,” said Mark Sherrell, Touchstone’s Chief of Plant Operations. “Mr. Resnick and The Wonderful Company want to eliminate competition so they can control the market and dictate prices. Without the balanced hand of the Board of Supervisors, the pistachio industry in this region would suffer a grave setback.
“We’re grateful that the board rejected Mr. Resnick’s attempt to dictate how the county interprets its own ordinances. We look forward to expanding the processing facility.”
The facility in question is run by ARO Pistachios, a subsidiary of Touchstone, and located west of Terra Bella.
The board will finalize the decision on Sep. 15, leaving Wonderful’s hopes of preventing Touchstone’s expansion in the hands of the Tulare County Superior Court, with an initial hearing scheduled for Sept. 1.
Wonderful filed a lawsuit against Tulare County in July, alleging that the county illegally issued the building permits to Touchstone.
Ultimately, Wonderful’s arguments before the board of supervisors Tuesday were the same presented in its lawsuit: the permits violate the county’s own code, and the permits violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
On the other hand, Touchstone’s lawyer Jennifer Hernandez argued that this whole issue is simply an effort by a business competitor to overturn routine actions.
“I’m an out-of-town lawyer,” Hernandez said. “Wonderful is represented by out of town lawyers. This is what, unfortunately, it’s come to – where out-of-town lawyers come in and say, ‘You don’t know your own code. Your staff is incompetent.’”
Hernandez called that notion “ridiculous.”
“In fact, the courts have consistently shown huge deference to local agencies and other agencies who interpret and apply their own codes on a routine matter, an agricultural processing facility for pistachios, that comes before this board all the time.”
Touchstone Pistachio owner Farid Assemi spoke at the meeting as well, saying Wonderful is attempting to abuse CEQA to fight a competitor.
“We’ve been in the construction business for 40 years,” Assemi said. “As you very well know, one of the most abused laws of our state is CEQA. It’s very easy to abuse it for your personal gain. I am proud to tell you in 40 years we’ve been in business we have never, never abused this law for competitive advantage. Never, because we’d have to ask our attorneys, our employees, to compromise our integrity and ask and seek a competitive advantage for us.”
Wonderful previously used CEQA to halt the construction of a Touchstone processing facility in Fresno County in a lawsuit filed last year.
The board of supervisors also received three letters in support of the Assemis and the Touchstone expansion.
Pistacia Global CEO Vahid Salehi said his company farms 1,500 acres of pistachios and has used the ARO facility for eight years.
Salehi noted the importance of the close proximity of his Terra Bella operation to the ARO facility and said Pistacia Global would fall on hard times if forced to send its harvest to a different processing facility.
Nader Malakan of Terra Bella Ranch also wrote to the board about the benefit of having a processing facility near the company’s 500 acres that it farms.
“If unable to use the Touchstone facility, we will be forced to transport our crop an additional 40 miles, which will increase the cost to process our crop by a considerable margin,” Malakan said.
Ruiz Foods co-founder Fred Ruiz wrote that he can attest to the ethics of the Assemis and the positive impacts the facility expansion would bring to the area, including job creation and tax revenue.
Touchstone projects the expanded facility to employ about 130 full-time workers, up to 240 during the peak period.
Before the supervisors voted in Touchstone’s favor, board chair Pete Vander Poel shared that he has heard much support for Touchstone from the community.
“I have received several phone calls from competitors, from growers,” Vander Poel said. “I know within Tulare County we have numerous that are both competitors and also may even be suppliers for various pistachio plants up and down the Valley.
“I know that the comment and sentiment was very consistent in supporting ARO, and even the fact that they are going to be a competitor, they still support the process and support everything that ARO has done to get to this point in their permitting process.”