FRESNO: Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability

Fresno and many of California’s agriculturally rich regions are also home to some of the most polluted and impoverished regions of the state. Families are exposed to environmental hazards in their air and water, leaving them with unsafe drinking water, wastewater oozing from dilapidated septic systems, and toxic air pollutants coming from myriad sources — including biomass incinerators and thousands of diesel trucks passing by each day.

Based in the San Joaquin and Eastern Coachella valleys, the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability works in partnership with some of the most environmentally impacted communities in California. In the city of Fresno, Leadership Counsel partners with residents from South Fresno and other advocates to transform historically neglected neighborhoods into healthy, safe, and thriving Green Zones.

Improving Land Use Planning
For decades in South Fresno, residents have lived near capped landfills called “parks,” suffered from severe air pollution, and found that playing outside could mean an emergency hospital trip for the thousands of kids suffering from asthma. ­­­Severe environmental degradation in the area has also resulted in drying domestic wells and elevated cancer rates. These neighborhoods are located in Census tracts identified by CalEnviroScreen as among the most polluted in the state.

To address these environmental justice issues, Leadership Counsel, as part of the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) coalition, worked alongside West Fresno residents and community stakeholders to provide input to the outdated Southwest Fresno Specific Plan (SWFSP). During this two-year-long process, community residents met frequently to advocate for community priorities. The final plan incorporates ideas that residents have wanted for decades: more parks, a variety of housing, grocery stores, a community college, bus rapid transit, community greening, and no new industrial development.

Industrial Compatibility Assessment
Leadership Counsel is also raising awareness around investment opportunities for historically neglected communities and ensuring that low-income communities of color are included in key decision-making processes. Working with Fresno BHC, they have supported a budget advocacy campaign in which community residents learn about and give input on how the city budget should be spent. Part of this campaign includes conducting an Industrial Compatibility Assessment (ICA) that can address Fresno’s toxic mix of industrial and residential land uses. As envisioned, this community-driven assessment will identify harmful land uses that are incompatible with sensitive uses such as homes and schools. It will then identify solutions to eliminate and mitigate those conflicts. The ICA implements policies from the General Plan and the SWFSP that Leadership Counsel, Fresno BHC, and residents won through their advocacy.

Transforming Fresno: Transformative Climate Communities
In January 2018, the city of Fresno was awarded $70 million through the state’s TCC program. (For more information on the program, see pages 32–33.) Southwest Fresno residents, with support from Leadership Counsel, Fresno BHC, and partner organizations, were instrumental in ensuring that an open, transparent, and community-led process guided the plans to allocate funding. Ultimately, a community-driven steering committee voted almost unanimously to award the majority of funding to projects located in West Fresno, with the remaining funding dedicated to Chinatown, Downtown, and the neighborhoods in between. Building upon the SWFSP, this large-scale TCC grant will begin to connect these neighborhoods and provide affordable housing, economic development, a grocery store, healthy green spaces, solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations, and a community college center.

Community-Based Advocacy for Neighborhood Priorities
Leadership Counsel has used its community lawyering to promote the environmental health and priorities of South Fresno, while also ensuring that communities have a seat at the table Since 2013, the group, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, has represented Concerned Citizens of West Fresno (CCWF) in a lawsuit against Darling Ingredients and the city of Fresno. For decades, Darling Ingredients has operated a meat rendering plant without required permits in Southwest Fresno. The plant emits noxious odors that make residents keep their doors and windows shut to avoid the air outside. After years of advocacy, mediation, and litigation by community members, lawyers, and advocates, the Fresno City Council approved a development agreement that relocates the plant to a new site located outside the city. This action is critical to revitalizing Southwest Fresno by allowing community assets such as housing, grocery stores, and retail to flourish through the SWFSP and the recent TCC funding.

In 2016 and 2017, the city of Fresno approved a series of large industrial warehouses next to several homes and a school in South Fresno, with little to no environmental review, mitigation, or a public process. When the city proposed a new 2.1 million-square-foot industrial development, Leadership Counsel and residents decided to fight back. Working with Fresno BHC, Faith in Fresno, and the community, they submitted detailed legal comments regarding the projects’ inadequate environmental review and civil rights implications. They also supported residents in testifying at hearings to oppose the project. When the city approved the project without addressing residents’ concerns, Leadership Counsel and its co-counsel filed suit to prevent the project from moving forward without adequate protections for local residents and the neighborhood.

Leadership Counsel’s Green Zones work continues to improve the entire San Joaquin and Eastern Coachella regions by supporting residents to transform local, regional, and state decision-making processes and hold their elected leaders accountable.

About Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability
Through co-powerment, community organizing, policy advocacy, and legal representation, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability ensures that low-income communities and communities of color are meaningfully included in decision-making processes. By including communities in these processes, Leadership Counsel works to address the historic underinvestment, disproportionate environmental impacts, and poor land use planning patterns.