Building Momentum, Building Community Strength, Building a Sustainable San Joaquin Valley – Fresno County, Merced County, and Tulare County


Engagement with decision making bodies throughout the San Joaquin Valley is essential to developing comprehensive and consistent policies that touch and benefit all segments of our community.  Land use planning can either encourage smart growth and limit sprawl, or allow for unrestrained development into natural lands and farmland.  Funds for transportation and infrastructure may be used in a variety of ways, but education of and engagement with decision-makers can ensure funds for active transportation and public transit.  Investing a significant amount of funding and other resources into the Valley’s disadvantaged communities is not only required by law, it is crucial to the sustainability of the community.  Frequent and continuous discourse with community residents is the most effective course in identifying and analyzing the community’s concerns and priorities.

Fresno County

According to the 2010 US Census, almost one million people reside in Fresno County, 22% of which are foreign born.[1]  Fewer than one in five people possess a Bachelor’s degree or higher.[2]  In 2014, 85% of permitted residential units were single family, detached homes,[3] which does not adequately provide affordable housing for the region.  Many residents do not have access to clean, affordable, reliable drinking water because much of the water is contaminated[4] and many wells have gone dry.  Growth occurs beyond city limits and in new towns even though there are ample opportunities for investment in existing communities.

Despite its support for external growth, the Fresno COG is interested in investing in transportation, implementing the Sustainable Communities Strategy goals, and land conservation.[5]  For example, the funding for public transit more than doubled between 2011 and 2014.[6]  Resident engagement is vital, evidenced by collaboration with residents of Lanare and Calwa which lead to active transportation projects.  Collaboration between advocacy organizations is key and made for a stronger SB 375 process and better RTP / SCS.

Water quality and quantity is more of an issue for disadvantaged communities.  Fresno County’s sustainability depends on collaboration between decision-making bodies, advocacy organizations, and residents.  In planning for the adoption of its Housing Element, jurisdictions should examine safe and affordable housing, for all residents, including farmworkers.

Merced County

Approximately a quarter of a million people reside in Merced County, according to the 2010 US Census.[7]  Over half of the residents are Hispanic or Latino, and a quarter of the residents are foreign born.[8]  Fewer than one in ten adults possess a Bachelor’s degree.[9]  The county has one of the highest rates in California for vehicular-caused fatalities, homicide, certain types of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.[10]

Almost a three-quarters of housing units are single family detached structures;[11] as such, there is a lack of affordable housing in the region.  Nearly a fifth of wells tested in Merced County contained nitrates at an unsafe level in 2010.[12]  The City of Merced’s sphere of influence has continued to expand to include undeveloped land, while avoiding the incorporation of disadvantaged unincorporated communities on the cusp.[13]

Merced County lacks the funds for transportation infrastructure,[14] but continues to spend what little money it has on new projects.  Merced failed to comply with the mandates of SB 375 by not meeting specific greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and thus is the process of an Alternative Planning Strategy.  MCAG has included a diverse group of stakeholders in the APS process.  Two disadvantaged communities, Planada and Beachwood Franklin, have had success in working with the county to improve active transportation.[15]

Merced County and MCAG have shown a willingness to work with advocacy organizations and residents; this collaboration must continue in the future.

Tulare County

The 2010 US Census reported that almost half a million people reside in Tulare County.[16]  Over one-fourth of these residents live below the poverty level.[17]  Approximately one in eight persons possesses a Bachelor’s degree or higher.[18]  41% of foreign-born residents are employed by the agriculture industry.  Over 25% of the housing needs in Tulare County are in unincorporated areas.  Many unincorporated communities do not have access to safe drinking water because of contaminants and dry wells.

The City of Tulare has not incorporated Matheny Tract, a disadvantaged unincorporated community, but has annexed the land to the north of it and south of it.  The county has allowed for a new 36,000 acre residential development, even though it cannot ensure basic services to existing communities such as Matheny Tract.  However Tulare CAG has places a restriction on transportation funds for new areas, instead focusing on existing communities.

Although Tulare CAG expressly stated that maintenance needs on existing transportation systems “greatly exceed” available funds,[19] the 2014 RTP allocated 45% of its funds to new construction.[20]  Tulare County and TCAG applied for Caltrans grants in 2014, hoping to fund pedestrian and transportation deficiencies in disadvantaged communities along State Route 65.  Tulare County applied for 18 projects through ATP, though only one was selected.  The RTP adopted by TCAG ensures equitable distribution of funds, encourages smart growth, and includes opportunities for public participation.[21]  County-wide community engagement, capturing state funding, maximizing the use of SB 244, updating the Housing Element, improving upon the current RTP, and public engagement in decision-making processes are imperative in the sustainability of Tulare County.

Opportunities and Recommendations

SB 375 provides Fresno, Merced, and Tulare Counties with opportunities to direct infrastructure funding to low-income communities and communities of color in order to make their neighborhoods healthy and sustainable.  It also provides opportunities to invest in communities that have been historically overlooked and excluded from the benefits of short and long term planning.  SB 244 requires analysis on unincorporated communities to address issues such as access to adequate quality and quantity of water, wastewater infrastructure, storm water drainage, and fire protection services.  Updates to the Housing Element would address various needs of the community, such as access to affordable housing and adequate infrastructure.  RTP policies are urged to continue and increase investment in low-income communities and communities of color, especially those in rural areas.

While some counties are increasing spending for public transit and bicycle and pedestrian projects, it is important that these types of projects are at the forefront of transportation projects.  Deficiencies in access to drinking water and wastewater management in disadvantaged communities must be addressed.

Resident engagement is vital to the decision-making processes of counties, cities and COGs.  Diverse representation, not only of residents, but also of organizations whose priorities may vary from environmental justice to housing rights to public health, is key to the success and sustainability of projects.

Upcoming Opportunities of Regional Significance

SB 375 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reductions Targets

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will initiate GHG target updates in the coming year for all MPOs. The San Joaquin Valley targets are currently set at 5% reduction by 2020 and 10% reduction by 2035. Changes to these targets will significantly impact transportation spending and projected development patterns of the 2018 RTP.

Cap and Trade: Three Year Investment Plan and Access to Resources

To successfully implement progressive land use polices cities and counties must actively identify and purse financial opportunities. Cal EPA’s CalEnviroScreen 2.0 positions the SJV to receive millions in state funding for public transit, active travel, affordable housing, weatherization, water conservation and other opportunities given population characteristics and exposure to environmental impacts. CARB will update the three year investment plan that identifies cap and trade allocation categories. Local and regional governments stand to benefit by working closely with community advocates to secure sufficient levels of investment in each funding category. In addition, local and regional governments must work closely with constituents and community based organizations to both develop and implement projects funded with cap and trade proceeds.

Development of 2018 Sustainable Communities Strategies

San Joaquin Valley MPOs will soon initiate efforts to develop the 2018 RTP/SCS. This will require significant coordination among local jurisdictions, residents and community based organizations to develop equitable land use scenarios with corresponding transit networks. Local jurisdictions must not merely update its 2014 RTP/SCS but rather work closely with residents to develop scenarios that promote, prioritize and frontload investments in existing urban and rural communities first.

[1] United States Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Fresno County, California,

[2] Id.

[3] Census Data, 2014 Building Permits


[5] Fresno Council of Governments, 2014 RTP/SCS Implementation,

[6] Fresno 2014 Regional Transportation Plan, 7-13

[7] United States Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Merced County, California,

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Merced County, Health Status Profile 2012,

[11] United States Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Merced County SELECTED HOUSING CHARACTERISTICS,

[12] Merced County’s groundwater gets clean bill of health – for the most part, by Jonah Owen Lamb, Merced Sun-Star,

[13] Merced County Local Agency Formation Commission, City of Merced Municipal Service Review,

[14] MCAG, 2011 Regional Transportation Plan,

[15] Merced County, CA: Connecting Highway 99 to University Community and New Jobs,

[16] United States Census Bureau, American Fact Finder: Tulare County, California,

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] TCAG Regional Transportation Plan 2014, Pg. 4-32

[20] Id. At Pg. 3-127.

[21] Id.

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