Building Momentum, Building Community Strength, Building a Sustainable Fresno County

General Overview: Land, People, Employment and Health

Fresno County is located in the San Joaquin Valley and it is bordered on the north by Madera and Merced Counties; Mariposa and Mono to the east; Monterey and San Benito to the west; and Kings and Tulare to the south. It has 15 incorporated cities. Clovis, Coalinga, Firebaugh, Fowler, Fresno, Huron, Kerman, Kingsburg, Mendota, Orange Cove, Parlier, Reedley, San Joaquin, Sanger, and Selma.[1] Over 60% of the population of Fresno County resides in either Fresno or Clovis.[2]  In the 2008-2010 California Farmland Conversion Report, the California Department of Conservation recorded a total of 2,196,025 acres of agricultural land, 825,752 of which is considered grazing land, and 1,370,273 of which is considered Important.[3]  Important farmland consists of several different categories listed here in a declining order of importance: Prime farmland compromises the plurality of acreage, and is defined as having “the best combination of physical and chemical features able to sustain long-term agricultural production.

In 2010, the US Census recorded a total population of 930,450 in Fresno County, 50.3% of which is Hispanic or Latino. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 205,349 are foreign born, 22% of the total population.[4] 26% of the residents of Fresno County live below the poverty level and only 19.6%, have a Bachelor’s degree or higher.[5] Additionally, California’s Employment Development Department shows unemployment at 11.2%.[6] According to the Census, four major industries account for 53.2% of the jobs in Fresno County: [1] Educational services, and healthcare and social assistance, [2] Retail Trade, [3], Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining, and [4] Professional, scientific, and management, and administrative and waste management services. However, when you adjust for the foreign born, the percentage of people employed in agriculture, nearly tripling to 27.1%.

Further exploring the characteristics of Fresno residents, the University of Wisconsin / Robert Wood Johnson Foundation county health rankings, which rank overall health of counties based on health outcomes and contributing factors, place the county 49th out of 57 California counties, and 54th for quality of life.[7]

Historic and Current Challenges to Smart Growth in Fresno County

Housing and Basic Services

Lower income residents in Fresno lack access to healthy and affordable housing, and housing growth has not historically matched the demonstrated need.

The area’s 2007 assessment of housing need declares that 40% of housing production should serve lower income residents,[8] yet building permits in the years following demonstrate a preference for single family homes – less likely to be affordable to lower income residents as compared to multifamily housing.  For example in 2009, single family homes accounted for 92% of permitted units.[9] Housing units in buildings with five or more dwellings only accounted for 5% of all permitted units. The recently adopted Regional Housing Needs Allocation states that anticipated housing needs for lower income residents now account for more than 40% of the areas housing need.[10] Yet still, in 2014, 85%[11] of permitted residential units were for single family, detached homes.

Many residents and communities have no access to clean, affordable or reliable drinking water or wastewater treatment. Throughout Fresno’s unincorporated communities, drinking water is contaminated with arsenic, nitrates and other contaminants.[12]  The costs of treatment are so high that residents must choose between drinking contaminated water or supplementing their domestic water service with bottled water.  The current drought is exacerbating conditions for residents and communities, as domestic wells go dry, and surface water rates skyrocket. Communities throughout the region are still reliant on septic systems, instead of public wastewater systems, which impacts both health and opportunities for housing growth.

In addition to affordable housing, drinking water and wastewater needs, many communities and neighborhoods within Fresno County lack access to basic services such as grocery stores, medical care, and education and employment opportunities in close proximity from where they live. Lack of sidewalks, bike lanes, adequate public transit and safe streets in these same neighborhoods further contribute to limited access to services and poor health outcomes.

Prioritization of New Development over Investment in Existing Communities

Fresno County and its constituent cities often promote and facilitate new growth beyond city limits and in new towns despite opportunities for growth and investment within existing communities. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors, for instance, recently voted to waive impact fees for new housing development that is primarily occurring in new and more affluent communities, and not in existing disadvantaged county communities. The City of Fresno, the largest metro area in the County and 5th largest city in California, has for decades grappled with unconstrained growth that drains city services and takes resources away from existing neighborhoods that for far too long have suffered the consequences of such growth (Figure 3). Figure 3 also demonstrates how Fresno – just one example of many cities with similar growth patterns – has historically formalized responsibility over tracts of land for new developments while keeping older, historic communities (such as Calwa) outside of city limits.


SB 375 – Opportunities and Challenges for Fresno County

SB 375 provided Fresno County with a unique opportunity to direct future infrastructure investments to existing low income and communities of color that struggle each day to make their neighborhoods healthy, vibrant and sustainable places to live. It also provided the Fresno Council of Governments (FCOG) with opportunities to invest in and revitalize communities that have historically been overlooked and excluded from the benefits of short and long term planning.  Community residents worked with the Community Equity Coalition to adopt a strong and equitable Sustainable Community Strategy (SCS). For over three years, residents and advocates worked with FCOG staff and decision makers to develop a range of scenarios that would guide future housing and employment growth and transportation related investments. These efforts resulted in four scenarios with diverse land use scenarios (but identical transportation investment plans). The FCOG Policy Board chose the scenario that was based on existing local land use plans which included the development of new towns and expanded growth in Fresno County’s foothills (Scenario B). Advocates supported Scenario D which included more compact development in existing cities and reallocated growth from new towns and foothill areas to existing disadvantaged unincorporated communities. Scenario D was developed in an effort to shift status quo land use planning in Fresno County to focus investment in existing communities and address critical needs and opportunities in lower income communities.


Shifting the Framework

Developing New Policies and Programs

While selection of Scenario B as the future development pattern for the county did not demonstrate a significant departure with respect to growth trends, Fresno County decision makers and staff embraced policies designed to expand opportunities for investment in lower income neighborhoods and communities. As part of the RTP/SCS adoption, Fresno COG directed staff to address three proposals brought forward by community advocates. These include (1) development of a Transportation Needs Assessment to help inform transportation investment decisions; (2) development of a Sustainable Planning and Infrastructure Grant Program to help jurisdictions implement the region’s Sustainable Communities Strategy goals; and (3) development of Natural and Working Lands Conservation Policies applicable to transportation projects.[13] Fresno COG staff has begun working with its member jurisdictions, members of the Community Equity Coalition and interested stakeholders to develop programs and policies to implement these proposals.

Shifting Investments Priorities

In addition to developing programs and policies that address deficiencies in existing disadvantaged communities, Fresno COG also shifted spending priorities. According to the adopted 2014 RTP, Fresno COG increased spending for both transit and bicycle and pedestrian projects.[14] This in excellent indicator of a change in historic patterns of investment. Residents from existing communities were strong supporters of allocating available dollars to projects that would provide diverse mobility options to access basic services. Figure 5 below illustrates how expenditures are allocated by mode in the 2014 RTP, and Figure 6 compares those allocations to Fresno COG’s 2011 RTP.  Figure 6 illustrates a significant change in investment by mode, with active transportation receiving a 25% increase in its allocation, and transit receiving a 130% increase in its allocation between 2011 and 2014, while overall spending decreased.

 Community Engagement

As Fresno COG and its member jurisdictions continue with implementation programs and policies in the RTP and beyond, they must ensure that community residents and community based organizations are included. Fresno COG has developed successful models to ensure meaningful public engagement such as the Regional Transportation Plan Roundtable that was convened to support FCOG staff in developing the region’s first SCS. The RTP Roundtable membership included stakeholders from diverse issue areas such as environmental justice, air quality, housing, building industry, transportation, public health, tribal representation, planning staff from member jurisdictions and active transportation advocates.[15] In addition, Fresno COG implemented a successful mini grant program that provide local community based organizations with funding to engage residents that they were already working with in the RTP/SCS development process.[16] This proved to be particularly successful in engaging underserved communities of color.

Resident engagement also catalyzes and facilitates strategic investments. Residents from the disadvantaged communities of Lanare and Calwa collaborated with local planners to develop sidewalk and walkway projects that will improve pedestrian safety and promote active travel.  The projects were funded by the Fresno COG and construction will begin shortly.

Collaboration across Issue Areas

As a result of SB 375, community organizations came together in an unprecedented alliance to advocate for a strong and equitable SCS that would first address the needs of existing communities. Local advocates from diverse issue areas – air quality, conservation, public health, and faith based, social justice, traditional environmentalists – supported with technical assistance from universities and statewide organizations coalesced around a shared agenda. The result was not only a stronger SB 375 process and better RTP / SCS but also a lasting coalition of organizations and residents committed to working together for improved conditions throughout Fresno County and the region as a whole.

Moving Towards a Sustainable Fresno County

Build on the Successes of Community Engagement

As we move towards local implementation of key RTP/SCS policies it is imperative to include the voices that are most impacted by regional growth and investment patterns. Local government – cities and Fresno County- must seek engage community residents in general plan reviews and updates. Communities, local governments and community based organizations must work together to develop plans that will lead to direct investments in community assets such as housing, parks, pedestrian facilities, water and wastewater infrastructure, and transit in existing disadvantaged communities. Decision making bodies must create opportunities for stakeholders to integrate their voices into these processes.

Local jurisdictions should take note of Fresno COG’s successful mini-grant program when preparing to undertake community planning processes. Engaging nonprofit partners that hold relationships with community leaders is an effective way of ensuring resident input in decision making processes. Most importantly, local advocates must continue to work together to expand upon existing community engagement efforts to build a constituency that monitors decision making to make sure it aligns with community priorities.

Regional Transportation Plan Implementation

Fresno COG has moved forward with implementation of its 2014 RTP. They have brought together city and county planners, community based organizations and other interested stakeholders to help guide implementation of the three policies identified by community advocates. FCOG’s willingness to dedicate time and resources to bringing stakeholders together should be replicated by its member jurisdictions as they prepare to update their own local plans.

Each jurisdiction must develop and adopt its Housing Element by December 2015.  For decades, residents have discussed the need to affirmatively further fair housing opportunities in the cities, particularly in the City of Fresno. Residents of disadvantaged rural communities and county planning documents also highlight the need for affordable and farmworker housing opportunities within their communities as many residents are living in dilapidated and overcrowded conditions. Residents in rural areas who often work in nearby farms and agriculture-related industries must have access to safe, affordable and decent housing. Residents, advocacy organizations and staff should work together to develop housing elements that address these concerns and leverage these opportunities for fair and affordable housing development.

Land Use Element Updates to Assess Drinking Water and Wastewater Needs

This year, Fresno jurisdictions will be analyzing drinking water and wastewater needs in disadvantaged communities in and adjacent to their spheres of influence, including an assessment of strategies to address those deficiencies. Such a comprehensive study will serve as a guidepost for future investment and planning to ensure the health, and long term sustainability of all of Fresno’s neighborhoods.

Drought conditions are further exacerbating drinking water quality and quantity issues. Decision makers need to take drinking water quality and availability of water into serious consideration in their short and long term land use planning efforts.

Engagement in Decision Making Processes

To reverse trends of historic disinvestment, structural poverty, poor air quality, environmental degradation and limited public participation we must all work together, understand and listen to differing perspective, and jointly develop policies and programs to improve Fresno County for all its residents.  Engaging with decision making bodies in Fresno County – for example City Councils, Board of Supervisors, Planning Commissions, Council of Governments, Local Agency Formation Commissions – is essential to developing comprehensive and consistent policies that touch and benefit all segments of our community. Each of these public entities play key and important roles in moving our region towards a more healthy and sustainable future. Communities and neighborhoods that have long been left behind and overlooked must play a central role in shaping the way we invest, grow and sustain ourselves.

[1] Fresno Council of Governments, Demographic Data,

[2] Fresno County, About the County,

[3] California Department of Conservation. 2008-2010 CALIFORNIA FARMLAND CONVERSION REPORT, Pg. 35 (2010).

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

[5] Id.

[6] California Employment Development Department, Fresno County Profile,

[7] County Health Rankings, Fresno (FR),

[8] Fresno County Regional Housing Needs Assessment, 2007

[9] Census Data, 2009 Building Permits

[10] Fresno County Regional Housing Needs Assessment, 2013

[11] Census Data, 2014 Building Permits


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

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

[15] Fresno Council of Governments,

[16] Fresno Council of Governments,

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