Case Study – Fresno: Ashley Werner, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

On December 4, 2018, CEJA hosted a webinar featuring three environmental justice experts to celebrate the release of our updated Green Zones Across California report, as well as our new website.

Below please find an excerpt from the December 2018 Green Zones Webinar.

Ericka:  And I would like to now introduce our final panelist. This is Ashley Werner. She’s a Senior Attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, where she is based in Fresno. At Leadership Counsel, Ashley partners with communities in the San Joaquin and East Coachella Valley to develop and lead legal and policy strategies that eradicate barriers to opportunity. She received her JD from Boston College Law School with a certificate in human rights and international justice and her BA from Swarthmore College. So thank you, Ashley, for being here with us today and being part of our webinar. So, please, feel free to take it away.


Ashley Werner: Hi. Thank you so much, and thank you so much to everybody taking the time out of your day to learn about green zones and our collective work to advance environmental justice throughout California. So today, I’m want to share some information about Leadership Counsel’s work that’s highlighted in the Green Zones Report to advance community-driven planning in the city of Fresno, in particular, to advance resident’s goals there for healthy neighborhoods, access to opportunity and resources, and fundamentally a say in decision making processes that impact people’s lives. I’m going to focus our efforts to impact the development of the 20-35 General Plan, the zoning ordinance update, and the subsequent Southwest Specific Plan, as well as some related specific and community plans, and try to highlight a little bit about some of the challenges and opportunities that arose out of those efforts.


So each of these topics could have its own independent webinar, so I will do my best to be brief and on time. A little bit of information about Leadership Counsel. We were founded in 2013. We working alongside residents of disadvantaged communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley and East Coachella Valleys with the mission of advocating for sound policy and eradicating injustice to secure equal access to opportunity, regardless of wealth, race, income, or place. These regions are predominantly agricultural economies and have hundreds of disadvantaged communities, both in urban and rural settings, that lack an access to basic infrastructure and services and amenities I think we all have come to expect living in modern-day United States.


And so we work both in rural communities as well as urban communities and urban fringe, unincorporated communities. All of our work we strive to ensure is rooted in partnerships, longterm partnerships, with community residents from impacted communities themselves, and we’re striving to ensure that all of our advocacy is shaped by their priorities and that, really, it’s the residents who are taking the leaderships and advancing strategies, and we’re doing what we can to facilitate their priorities and their strategies. Some of the big issues that we work on, the bucket areas, are access to basic infrastructure and services, so addressing critical deficits in access to safe and affordable drinking water, which amazingly impacts more than a million people in the state of California still, deficits in access to functioning community wastewater systems, street lights, sidewalks, stormwater drainage, basics of active and public transportation resources so people can get to where they need to go, especially in communities that are separated from other critical resources, safe and affordable housing and fair housing choice, a healthy environment, and energy access as well as just ensuring a basic fair share of investments.


And to advance these different goals, we use all of the different tools that we have in our toolbox. So we root all of our work in longterm organizing. We do local, regional, and statewide policy advocacy, and we use legal advocacy and impact litigation as necessary, and also work in coalitions like CEJA because we understand that if we’re really going to advance these levels, both locally and across the state, we need to have partners and we need to work across silos and ensure that we’re really advancing these issues collectively.


So to talk about the General Plan and zoning ordinance update in the city of Fresno, just as with all of our work, we approach these processes from the base of community engagement. As we these processes began and as we began to engage in these processes, we held regular meetings with community leaders, at least on a monthly basis, from all of the impacted neighborhoods that we worked in in the city of Fresno and also on the fringe of the community. So this includes unincorporated neighborhoods that were not in the city of Fresno itself but were impacted by the policies in the General Plan. And so that includes the Jane Adams neighborhood. If you look at the map that’s on the webinar right here, that neighborhood is kind of at the top left corner just north of a significant area of industrial development, which is represented by gray on the map.


We worked a lot in West Fresno, which is to the southwest as well as southeast and in the downtown areas. And so all of these areas except for the downtown have communities both within city limits as well as on the fringes and just outside of the city itself. So you have a mix of communities that have access to the full range of city services, as well as neighborhoods which partially lack access to safe and affordable drinking water and wastewater services, neighborhoods that may have been annexed but still lack basics of sidewalks and street lights. And all of these neighborhoods are heavily impacted by industrial land uses and zoning. So as I mentioned, on the map in front of you, gray represents industrial zoning, and so, as you can see, that encircles the community of West Fresno and actually have industrial zoning in the heart of the community, heavy industrial zoning, and partially encircles neighborhoods in Southeast Fresno, and actually has industrial zoning over where people live in residential areas.


So you can’t see in detail on the map where there’s actual residences, but there’s actually planning for industrial land uses over where there are existing communities. So during this process, we engaged people to continue what we had already been doing before the General Plan update of identifying what people’s key priorities were for their neighborhoods and linking that to the General Plan process, linking it to processes for community engagement and input and connecting with decision makers, including city staff and elected officials. So as this process went forward, some of the key issues that came up that people really wanted to see changed was, one, the issue of industrial development, so nowhere else in the city were neighborhoods zoned for industrial use and surrounded by industrial uses.


And like many of the other people on this presentation today or all of the other organizations represented here today, many of these communities rank among the most impacted by multiple sources of pollution in the state of California. So the city of Fresno actually has about 15 of the top 20 most impacted communities by various sources of pollution and also vulnerability to pollution. So for residents, addressing this conflict of where industry was zoned next to residences arose as a really top priority, people wanting to see both prohibitions on new industrial zoning in their neighborhoods, as well as mitigation measures to address existing conflicts.


Other issues that rose to the top were addressing this issue of lack of basic infrastructure to support walking and biking in communities. This is especially an issue for neighborhoods in urban fringe areas, which either had not yet been annexed to the neighborhood—it might be annexed in coming years—or had developed when they were in the county and had subsequently been annexed but still lacked sidewalks. And so, as you can see, there’s a photo here of two kids and one of our former staff members at Leadership Counsel, and they’re in the Jane Adams neighborhood. And they did a community tour to really get into detail about the specifics that they wanted to see addressed through the General Plan update. And you can’t see it in the photo, but right next to them across the street from them there is a rock crushing facility which creates dust throughout the air.


If you can see in the photo, it looks a little bit hazy, and that is because the air quality is very, very poor in the neighborhood partially because of the location of the rock crushing facility, which is also across the street from the Jane Adams Elementary School, as well as its proximity to Highway 99 and a number of other industrial centers, including a chemical manufacturing plant and a towing company. And so, right here, there happens to be a partial sidewalk in front of the house, but a lot of that neighborhood actually has no sidewalks even though it’s been annexed to the city for several decades at this point. And so you have kids walking to and from school without sidewalks next to pretty heavy trucking, car traffic, and then also impacted by fog in the winter and a lack of street lights. So the combination of conflicting land uses and lack of adequate resources in the neighborhood became a really high priority of how to address both of those.


Another key issue that arose was addressing the lack of green space in neighborhoods in South Fresno. And so as the General Plan update went forward, we looked at data that showed that the city of Fresno ranks among the worst metropolitan areas in the entire country for access to park space. But for people in South Fresno and a whole range of neighborhoods, they frequently have less than half the amount of park space as residents in northern areas of the city. And so, for instance, in the Jane Adams neighborhood, there’s a high concentration of mobile home parks compared to the city as a whole, and so people are living in very small units. But in those mobile home parks and in the areas surrounding it, there’s no green space for people to play, and then the roads are not safe for kids to be walking on or riding bikes on.


In some neighborhoods like West Fresno, another issue was that, to the extent there was park space, those parks were on sites that families didn’t even feel comfortable having their kids play on. The two regional parks in the area were former landfills that were capped over with grass and had no facilities on them or very limited facilities. So they didn’t really provide a great space for kids to recreate and play and have fun, and so that became a very big issue. So to advance resident’s goals during this process, we continued to have ongoing meetings on a regular basis, ad hoc meetings as necessary, and used all of those different tools I talked about in the beginning. So it is a ton of work to effectively engage in these processes, both for residents as well as for organizations and for jurisdictions if they really want to do it right. So it involved constant outreach and ongoing communication with residents as developments came up in these neighborhoods across the city, coalition building to make sure that we were communicating with different partners who themselves had priorities in making sure we we were working together.


We worked very closely with the Fresno Building Healthy Communities initiative, the League of Women Voters, Boys and Men of Color, and a number of other communities. And that was really, really important because it helped us elevate collective issues and really identify what were the key priorities and maximize our impact. And then other components of the work involved policy research. We actually really drew a lot from National City’s work and the work of Environmental Health Coalition and how they dealt with the impact of industrial uses in their neighborhood and were able to provide concrete examples to the city of Fresno that these issues have been looked at in the past and solutions do exist. So that was extremely helpful, and then also using our legal tools and resources, so helping to educate the city about the legal requirements under the General Plan, the different issues that need to be addressed, and also engaging in the Environmental Impact Report process to ensure that, to the extent the policies did exist, that could have negative environmental impacts on communities, including industrial land uses next door to sensitive land uses, that there were policies in place and mitigation measures in place to protect people.


So through that process, we achieved several important advancements, but it left a lot, still, to be desired. So a couple of the big steps coming out of the General Plan were policies to prioritize and target resources for park development and park facility development and the resources in the neighborhoods that were the most under-resourced, policies to target capital improvement funds to address safe routes to school needs in disadvantaged communities and in areas that had the greatest need for access to sidewalks, street lights, stormwater drainage. For industrial development, the city was very intent on retaining much of the industrial zoning in place that was next door to homes and schools and other sensitive uses.


They did reduce the intensity of the zoning in certain neighborhoods next door to sensitive uses, but not in all. As part of the compromise, they adopted a policy to conduct a comprehensive industrial compatibility assessment. And, again, this was inspired by our partners in National City and Environmental Health Coalition and had a goal, for the first time, ensuring that the city comprehensively assess this issue of incompatibility of where industrial and other toxic or polluting land uses were located next to neighborhoods and what solutions might exist to minimize and eliminate those impacts.


And, finally, we achieved a commitment largely through the efforts of a really amazing youth coalition with Boys and Men of Color for the city to do a Parks Master Plan update and do a deep dive into exactly where parks should be prioritized, what types of parks and what types of facilities they needed. So the General Plan update served as a really great foundation to engage the community, educate ourselves and educate one another and educate city decision makers about the priorities as well as the legal requirements and policy possibilities to advance those priorities. But it also left us with a lot of policies that had to be implemented and a number of different planning efforts that then we would have to see through to the next phase.


I’ll just talk in brief about the zoning ordinance update, but I will flag it as a really important issue because I think that zoning ordinances are really, like, the meat and potatoes of environmental justice because they control what are the permanent requirements for different types of land uses and different zones, so in a heavy industrial district, what types of land uses can go forward with absolutely no sort of discretionary review process, and what actually require a closer look and standards and requirements to ensure that there won’t be negative impacts on neighbors, for example. And zoning ordinance also established performance standards for what levels of impacts are acceptable on nearby communities, residences, and properties.


For instance, what levels of sound where trucks can travel, what level of light and glare and dust can impact, and what uses must do to control those impacts. So zoning ordinance often sounds arcane and maybe very boring, but I actually think they’re one of the most exciting parts of land use law and an opportunity to really make an impact to protect communities from uses that might have harmful impacts on residences. So we made sure that, like the General Plan update, we were part of that process. We were engaged. And through being engaged in it, we were able to ensure that some uses that were really flagged as priorities by residents did continue to have conditional use permit requirements and that there was very basic requirements to notify the community of those uses.


And I would say that that was a big challenge because the city of Fresno, like many cities and counties across California, is really prioritizing streamlining development, that that jurisdiction has a priority to move forward. So in this case, one of those types of developments that was a priority for streamlining for the city of Fresno is industrial development. So the direction for staff and the theme was to reduce permit requirements on industry and reduce any sort of regulatory process or minimize those burdens of regulatory process. While, for environmental justice advocates, we really want to ensure that there is an appropriate process in place so that residents are aware of uses coming to their neighborhoods and have the opportunity to engage in land use decisions.


So all of this work on the zoning ordinance and the General Plan set the stage to do more deep community engagement and refine policies through the Southwest Specific Plan and the community plans. The Southwest Specific Plan was about a two-year process. We were very fortunate that the council member for the district decided to prioritize community engagement in the process and dedicate pretty significant resources to ensuring that the city was able to engage residents and hold a variety of community meetings and different settings in the community after work hours with translation so that people would have the opportunity to provide input and weigh in on successive drafts.


And this is really critical in the community of West Fresno. Like many other areas of the city of Fresno, which is a very diverse community, it is about 98.5% people of color. It has a historical African American population, a Latino population, and Southeast Asian immigrant population, among others, and a whole host of different languages spoken and very different levels of comfort with engaging in city bureaucratic processes and different forms of engagement that were appropriate for those populations. So having resources dedicated to that was really essential. Some of the issues that arose in that process were the very same issues that arose in the General Plan process, but we had the opportunity to dig in more detail.


Through that process, because of the robust community engagement process, I think that allowed us to achieve really great victories that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. That was also in conjunction with a steering committee that was composed of 21 different residents and community stakeholders that had many, many meetings and long meetings to debate and discuss issues. And they had decided on a voting standard of two-thirds vote to approve any policy, so having that 21-person steering committee that really had to achieve a high standard for adopting policies went a long way towards getting council buy-in for the plan and paving the way for it to actually be accepted by a city council who may otherwise have been pretty resistant to some of the policy changes that were adopted in that plan.


And so just to summarize the big items that came out of that plan, the biggest item was that there was a policy for no new industrial development in the community through a change in zoning. That was really huge. Policies for new educational centers, bus rapid transit, housing to meet the various needs of different populations within the community, among others. I will just note, without getting into detail, at the same time, there was a whole series of other planning processes happening, the housing element, the active transportation plan, and it was critical that we engage in those processes at the same time to make sure that, collectively, the plans were helping move forward the goals of the community and not at odds with one another or leading us to regress.


Another point to bring up is that displacement avoidance was key. People were very concerned that having a new plan would trigger gentrification and displacement, and so we had to really ensure that at every step we were pushing for a greater awareness that this is a risk given the high rates of rent burden in the area. We did succeed in getting some policies to look at displacement but are going to have to continue to work on that since there were not actual policies to take preventative steps at that time. And then, finally, I think one of the biggest things the plan did was it made the community ready to receive funding because often having a specific plan is a basic eligibility requirement to receive different state grants, and so it happened to align with the Transformative Climate Communities’ process where Fresno was selected to receive $70 million of funding to target disadvantaged communities to transform them, reducing house gas emissions, and target the resources that they need.


So having that plan allowed West Fresno to be an eligible neighborhood to receive that funding. Through a very long community process, they were actually able to secure about half of those funds. So that last slide deserved a lot more time. It’s very important, a lot of the work that went on in those different processes, and I encourage you all to dig into it. There’s a lot of information out there about those different processes I just mentioned. But, finally, in brief, I’ll just mention a couple of the key challenges and opportunities that came up in these different processes. One is follow through with implementation. So I think a lot of times we do huge campaigns to work to pass really important policies the community prioritizes, and then as soon as we finish that, the next campaign is implementation because without implementation it’s just a policy and a piece of paper and doesn’t actually lead to real change or mean anything for people on the ground.


And so for each of the policy wins that were achieved, more work and more campaigns are necessary and ongoing community engagement to ensure that implementation happens and happens in the way that it was really intended by residents. Second, there was a constant tension that became apparent between these statewide goals that are being advanced around equity and climate change more and more. Our state is acknowledging and identifying a priority to ensure equity, to ensure that we’re prioritizing infill development, good air quality, reducing our environmental impacts, but, at the same time, we still really hold strong to a local control mantra. And so the state has been very hesitant to adopt any restrictions on where we can actually put these land uses that are having really negative consequences for disadvantaged communities. So that was a tension which is very challenging, and I think environmental justice advocates have a lot of work to continue to do around that.


And, finally, just a note that all of this is slightly different and maybe more challenging for disadvantaged unincorporated communities, urban fringe communities, and in rural and under-resourced jurisdictions. For unincorporated communities, like Jane Adams, that are just outside city limits, they’re often not informed of planning processes or invited to the table or even that they’re being impacted. So it really requires special attention to ensure that they are engaged to the extent that they really should be. And with respect to rural communities and under-resourced jurisdictions, many of the state funding opportunities that exist to help realize green zones and target investments in disadvantaged communities are often using standards that make it really hard for these rural areas to be competitive. So that’s something that, collectively, we should be looking at and working to change. So I’ve probably exceeded my time limit, and thank you all for your attention and patience, and I will conclude now.


Ericka: Thank you, Ashley, for that information. I really appreciate your slides and all the information that you shared with us. I hope by now everyone who is listening to us throughout this webinar has been able to gather a richer understanding of what green zones is and the Green Zones Initiative.