Real Estate

Fresno lawmakers approve return to zoning rules for some of southwest warehouse district – but a new fight looms.

A thorny, make-or-break zoning issue surrounding some of Fresno’s largest industrial firms reached a partial, if incomplete settlement at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting. 

A 92 acre area between E. Vine Ave. to the north, Highway 41 to the east, S. Elm Ave. to the west and E. Chester and E. Samson Ave. to the south is occupied by a smattering of logistics warehouses, playing host to a bevy of firms – from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to snack food producer Mondelez to local garbage hauler Mid-Valley Disposal.

That sprawling industrial site had its zoning switched from light industrial to neighborhood mixed use when the Southwest Fresno Specific Plan was approved in 2017, with little notice to the property owners. 

Issues arose when property owners sought financing on their properties and began planning for tenant turnover.

Due to the nature of the rezone, businesses currently occupying the properties would be grandfathered in to continue operations. In land use jargon, is dubbed a “legal noncomforming use.”

However, the shift to neighborhood mixed use made future financing for the properties tenuous, at best, and scared off prospective tenants eyeing space on the site.

Thursday, the council unanimously approved a proposal developed by Councilman Miguel Arias to change the zoning from E. Annadale Ave. to E. Vine Ave from neighborhood mixed use to light industrial.

The move, which covers roughly one-third of the entire 92 acre area,  

The reset of the request from the property owners, for the portion south of E. Annadale Ave. – which is about two-thirds of the total land – was denied. 

“It does create practical issues for everybody south of Annadale,” Fresno attorney John Kinsey, who represents the property owners, told the council. “And my suspicion is that they would be very disappointed by a plan of action that bifurcates the properties.” 

The compromise hinges on the creation of a citywide zoning overlay district. If created, the overlay would contain certain protections that the community seeks regarding environmental concerns. 

Once the overlay is complete, property owners south of E. Annadale Ave. could apply to the city to take effect.

The council directed city staff to return within 90 days with the overlay plan finalized for approval. City staff will meet with both the community and property owners to craft the plan.

To this point, the overlay has been anathema to both sides of the conversation. Community owners argue it serves as a functional full retreat from the 2017 specific plan sought to largely eliminate industrial uses in the area.

Property owners note that the overlay would require every new tenant to undergo the arduous environmental impact process typically consigned to projects subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the state’s notoriously cumbersome environmental review law.

The move by the Fresno City Council on Thursday came in spite of an ominous, last-ditch request from California Attorney General Rob Bonta to halt all plans to rezone. 

In the letter, he called the rezone plan “misguided” and pointed to state law that requires cities to make a corresponding zoning move when reducing housing zoning designations. 

The city did not address how it plans to add housing zoning elsewhere in light of the rezone.

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.