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Council begins fresh attempt to resolve Darling rendering plant controversy

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“Paging Congressman Baines … Sir, your table is ready!”

Oliver Baines isn’t a U.S. Congressman, at least not yet. He’s still the Fresno City Council Member representing District 3. I’m merely letting my imagination chew on the idea – Baines, a member of the House of Representatives, being seated at a fancy Washington, D.C. restaurant after a long day of doing the Republic’s business.

The council agenda for this Thursday got me thinking this way.

One of the items on the consent calendar asks the council to approve a contract with Ascent Environmental, Inc., a Sacramento-based company. Cost — $79,802. Purpose – conduct a study involving the California Environmental Quality Act.

Sounds pretty boring, right? Well, not if you take a closer look at the proposed deal, then combine that with an item on the council’s closed session agenda.

Ascent is being asked to take a look a possible rezoning of the city’s wastewater treatment plant west of town. We’re talking about the sewer farm.

The sewer farm is huge – 3,200 acres, or five square miles. A tiny portion is devoted to the heavy-duty process of treating sewage. Much of the site consists of treatment/percolation ponds. Everything is about three miles west of town.

The sewer farm is currently zoned as “public facility.” The city wants to see if it makes sense to rezone the area as “heavy industrial.” This would require a general plan amendment.

Let’s say Ascent gets the contract and does the study. And the study says it’s A-OK to rezone the sewer farm as heavy industrial. What would that mean as far as city policy?

I give you a portion of the key paragraph in a letter from Ascent to Jennifer Clark, director of the city’s Development and Resource Management department. (The letter is part of the staff report.)

A rezoned sewer farm would lead to a project, Ascent wrote. This project “would accommodate relocation of an existing rendering facility, construction of a new energy storage facility, as well as potentially other similar uses. The rendering facility would be moved to a more appropriate locale near the WWTP (sewer farm). The rendering operation and energy storage facility would likely be located near the intersection of W. Jensen Avenue and S. Cornelia Avenue near an existing PG&E facility; the rendering operation would occupy approximately 20 acres just south of the PG&E facility, and the energy storage facility would occupy a larger site south of the PG&E facility. The relocation of the rendering facility would reduce existing nuisance to surrounding land uses from operation of the facility, including noise, odor, and truck trips.”

That’s a lot of talk about an unnamed “rendering facility.” But the mystery is solved by looking at the bottom of the council’s agenda. Under “closed session,” we learn that the council will talk privately with City Manager Bruce Rudd about a possible real estate deal at 5607 W. Jensen. That’s the sewer farm. The deal points in question are price and terms of payment. The other party to the possible deal: Darling Ingredients, Inc.

Yes, that Darling Ingredients, the company at the center of a decades-long political controversy in West Fresno.

Darling’s plant is located at 795 W. Belgravia Ave. It’s in the middle of an industrial area. It’s also fairly close to a lot of houses.

The site wasn’t always in an urban setting. But Fresno kept growing, and pretty soon Darling was cheek-by-jowl with high-density neighborhoods.

West Fresno community leaders are adamant: Darling needs to relocate. The leaders say the plant provides a valuable service to society, not the least being the jobs it creates. But, the leaders add, the plant, despite the company’s best efforts at various environmental controls, simply has no business being located near bustling neighborhoods.

Darling officials over the years have said their plant is not a nuisance. The officials say the plant meets all environmental mandates. They say the city has no business or legal authority to impose additional (and possibly onerous) regulations on the plant.

City officials for years have searched for a way to make everyone happy. Any solution that involves moving the Darling plant to another site is almost certain to cost big bucks. The question, of course, is who foots all – or most – of the bill. One piece of this puzzle is finding a new site and settling on price, be it purchase or lease.

In other words, real estate. That’s what the City Council will tackle on Thursday – in open session with the Ascent deal, in closed session with the city’s property negotiator.

It’s unclear whether the public on Thursday will hear a peep from the council on these two matters. The consent calendar is a list of actions generally approved with a single voice vote. Only items specifically pulled by a council member are debated. And it’s rare for the council to emerge from closed session to discuss something they reviewed behind closed doors.

But make no mistake, this Darling controversy is a big deal. The politics are too complex to go into here. There can be no doubt, though, that the people on all sides who contribute to a fair resolution will deserve public praise.

Baines represents West Fresno. He’s not the only person in the Darling controversy trying to square the circle. But, as the legislator serving the area, he’s on the hot seat.

Over the years I’ve talked often to Baines and Greg Barfield, his chief of staff, about Darling. From my perspective, Baines is doing his best to fulfill his duty. A solution to the Darling challenge most likely will have his imprint all over it.

Baines has two-and-a-half years left in his second term on the council. He’s seasoned, yet still youthful. He’s ambitious, with justification. Nothing boosts the career prospects of a politician in such a spot like turning a bitter fight into a collaborative success.

“Would you like something to drink before dinner, Congressman Baines?”

It could happen.

George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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