The City of Fresno is close to adopting a general plan that would allow the city's population to increase by two-thirds within the existing sphere of influence. The proposed general plan, which contains many New Urbanist concepts, presents a marked departure from past Fresno planning practices that encouraged low-density development on the fringes.

"For the first time, we're not proposing to extend our sphere of influence line outward," Fresno Development Department Director Nick Yovino said. "For us, it's a major change in the way we've done planning. … These are planning policies we've never seen in Fresno."

The draft general plan builds on a 1998 document issued by the Growth Alternatives Alliance, a collection of development, agricultural, business and environmental groups. The Alliance's "Landscape of Choice" was widely lauded for its recommendations regarding compact development, urban infill and preservation of farmland.

While Landscape of Choice remains popular, Fresno will need cooperation from neighboring jurisdictions for its plan to be effective. City officials also must deal with homeowners who object to significant upzoning of their rural residential neighborhoods.

"The big question in all of this," Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson conceded, "is whether Fresno will explode in another jurisdiction."

Fresno's general plan update process is eight years old, but the city changed directions less than a year ago. In 1992, a 27-member citizen advisory committee started work. The committee conducted more than 100 meetings and addressed numerous planning issues and alternatives before issuing a recommended plan (now called the 2020 Plan) in March 1997. The 2020 Plan called for expanding the city's sphere of influence by one-third to about 189 square miles, creating three new growth areas, intensifying development on the city's west side and encouraging extensive mixed-use development. Assuming an annual growth rate of 2.7%, the plan would accommodate 920,000 people. The same area now contains about 480,000 residents, about 60,000 of whom live in unincorporated Fresno County.

After the committee issued its recommendation, Patterson and three councilmembers began meeting with representatives of Fresno County and the City of Clovis, which abuts northeast Fresno. However, an inability to reach tax-sharing agreements hindered regional planning. So in October 1999, Patterson and the ad-hoc committee told planners to start over: Fresno should accommodate the next 20 years of growth within its existing 141-square-mile sphere of influence. After working on the 2020 Plan for seven years, planners have shifted into warp speed to get a very different plan adopted before a new mayor and new councilmembers are seated in January.

The new plan, called the Mayor's Alternative 2000 Plan, reduces growth projections to 2% per year. That figure jibes with revised estimates from the state Department of Finance, which two years ago cut its own growth projections in half. Still, the proposed general plan adds about 305,000 people to the existing sphere of influence. That would make Fresno similar to present day Indianapolis in population and density, and more populous than such big cities as Baltimore, Memphis and Seattle.

Thus, Fresno's proposed general plan is urban in nature, calling for several mixed-use activity centers, more residences downtown and a lengthy mid-rise and high-rise corridor along Highway 41/Blackstone Avenue. The plan eliminates farmland from the city and increases permissible building densities on large swaths of existing ranchettes and large-lot residential parcels. The plan's appendix includes the Landscape of Choice recommendations and even the Ahwahnee Principles from the New Urbanism movement.

The new approach prevents Fresno's urban development from swallowing valuable farmland. That is especially important because, with a 1999 agricultural output of $3.6 billion, Fresno County is the most productive farm county in the United States.

Fighting urban sprawl and protecting prime agricultural land are major issues in the Central Valley, and the region's largest city should take the lead, Mayor Patterson said. "This is a very big change for Fresno. We have grown out since we've been a city," said Patterson, who will complete his second, and final, four-year term in January. But Fresno leaders acknowledge that their new approach to development will fail if other jurisdictions — namely Clovis, and the counties of Fresno and Madera — demonstrate a willingness to permit old style sprawl.

Madera County Planning Director Leonard Garoupa said Fresno's proposed general plan "would probably intensify development pressure in our county somewhat," But, he added, unincorporated Madera County, which lies across the San Joaquin River from Fresno, received several large-scale development proposals without a change in Fresno's growth strategy. The five-year-old Rio Mesa Area Plan calls for upwards of 30,000 homes in three villages in southern Madera County. The county is now working on an infrastructure plan for two of the villages, Garoupa said.

Garoupa said his county pursued the Rio Mesa plan because Fresno-area growth has moved north toward Madera County and because the state intends to extend the Highway 41 freeway into Madera County. The University of California's plans to build a tenth campus in the area — since dropped in favor of a Merced County location — also spurred Madera County's planning, he added. Madera County's apparent willingness to accommodate spill-over growth worries Fresno officials. Fresno's relationship with its own county also is tenuous.

"There are significant forces that would try to break up this effort and peel off large tracts away from our spheres to get approval by the county," Patterson said. "My hope is that the county would say no to it."

In fact, Fresno County is updating its own general plan, with adoption scheduled this fall. Although the county's draft general plan emphasizes economic development, the proposed plan directs 93% of population growth to existing cities or unincorporated communities. Preservation of farmland is a priority.

"The major thrust is to continue to direct — and I say continue to direct because it has been the county's policy since its adoption of the general plan in 1976 — intensive development to the incorporated cities," said Stan Ediger, a Fresno County planner.

Still, Yovino noted a conflict: the county's draft plan calls for Fresno to enlarge its sphere of influence, and for all other cities to maintain their existing spheres. Yet Fresno is the only city in the county that is not interested in expanding its sphere.

Clovis, a city whose population has doubled in 20 years to 70,000, could be an even greater concern. The Clovis general plan calls for a significant eastward expansion to accommodate about 45,000 more people. Clovis has been negotiating with the county over a sphere of influence expansion for three years.

Clovis Planning and Development Service Director John Wright, however, said he sees no conflict between his city's seven-year-old general plan and Fresno's proposal. Fresno never had designs on Clovis's planned area of expansion. And Landscape of Choice endorsed the Clovis general plan for its emphasis on new urban centers, Wright noted.

Fresno's growth policies affect Clovis, but they are not a deciding factor in how Clovis develops, Wright said. "We look at what is around us, but we believe we have a distinct and unique community," he said.

While staff planners from the various cities and counties have tried to maintain communication, elected officials have shown little willingness to meet to discuss regional land use issues. Patterson said Fresno prefers a cooperative approach but is not afraid of a fight. If it appears other jurisdictions are approving projects that use land or water inefficiently, "we can be the biggest, meanest, baddest dog on the block and challenge every CEQA document that these other jurisdictions prepare," Patterson said. 

Patterson also noted that the proposed plan has a way out. It calls for an annual "status of the general plan" report by the mayor, which he described as a "gut check."

One issue almost certain to appear in annual reports concerns upzoning of rural residential districts on either side of the existing city limits. First, the City Council must overcome residents' demand that large-lot zoning remain in place. Then, to implement denser zoning, the building industry will need to assemble numerous existing parcels, some of which might already be developed, Yovino said.

"We are making sure that everybody knows this will not be a simple thing to do," Yovino said. "We don't have all of the exact answers."

Larry Mintier, of J. Laurence Mintier & Associates, Fresno County's general plan consultant, said reaching agreement on the future of existing rural residential areas has proven sticky. Cities want to grow into those areas, but county supervisors feel a need to protect their constituents' ranchette lifestyles, he said.

"I can't think of any other place where we have the extent of rural residential development that we have in Fresno County," Mintier said. "The important thing in the Fresno County general plan is that they are not committing any more land for rural residential development. And, number two, they are setting some limitations on the buildout of these areas."

Public hearings on the Mayor's Alternative 2000 Plan are set to begin in October. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the county's proposed general plan on October 3.


Jim Patterson, Fresno mayor, (559) 498-1560.

Nick Yovino, Fresno development department director, (559) 498-1591.

Stan Ediger, Fresno County planning department, (559) 262-4242.

Larry Mintier, J. Laurence Mintier & Associates, (916) 446-0522. Leonard Garoupa, Madera County planning director, (559) 675-7821.

John Wright, Clovis planning and development services director, (559) 297-2340.

Fresno Community Planning Library website: