Last year, the threat of an endangered salamander just beyond Clovis city limits temporarily stopped one of the region’s largest developers from building a new 1,000-acre tract of suburbia.
Now, even with confirmation of the presence of the endangered animal, the city is moving forward with the developer’s full plan to potentially build thousands of single-family homes on that 1,000-acre tract, salamander or no salamander.
“We are confident we will be able to move forward as the [environmental report] identifies the scope of the [salamander] problem,” Jeffrey Harris, a top official of Wilson Homes, the real estate developer for the tract, told the Clovis City Council at its Nov. 14 meeting.
“We are assuming the presence of tiger salamanders; it seems a waste of time to fight with federal and state agencies,” he added.
The 1,000-acre tract, which could accommodate more than 10,000 new people, is near Shepherd Avenue and the Dry Creek dam north of city limits.
At its meeting, the Clovis City Council unanimously approved taking the first steps to accommodate this new development. With a $600,000 contract, the city commissioned the De Novo Planning Group to prepare an environmental impact report, which is required for the city’s proposed northward expansion of its sphere of influence that includes the 1,000 acres.
The proposed 1,000-acre development was cut last year after an environmental report from Kathy Kinsland, a senior biologist at Argonaut Ecological Consulting, noted that a part of the tract within the proposed development area contained a potential California tiger salamander breeding habitat. The area has a combination of vernal pools and grasslands, where the salamanders can thrive.
Harris confirmed the presence of the endangered salamanders in the area, near the Dry Creek dam spillway, but still encouraged council members to not pull back the growth plans like they did last year.
“We will be working with the environmental authorities on how to mitigate [the salamander problem],” said Harris about the full project; he added that he didn’t know “what the mitigation will be.”
After a year, Clovis returns to its path to growth
In addition to the tiger salamander, the council members soothed their concerns about another type of local pest: affordable housing.
Despite the thousands of new homes that could be built in the area, Councilmember Drew Bessinger assured the council about the possibility of affordable housing being built there. He said that neighbors won’t have to “worry about high-density housing being placed in any of this area.”
“This is the correct way to go,” Councilmember Vong Mouanoutoua said about the single-family developments. “It is smart planning.”
The council’s proposed 1,000-acre development has been in the works since 2016, according to city documents.
The Clovis council members’ comments come as the city is involved in a lawsuit with Central California Legal Services over alleged discrimination against low-income people and people of color. The lawsuit alleges Clovis has not complied with state housing law requiring proper zoning for affordable housing in the city.
According to the lawsuit, then-Clovis Mayor Jose Flores allegedly said at a city council meeting in October 2018 that complying with state housing law would be a “burden” which would “lower the Clovis standard.” At the same meeting, Mouanoutoua had asked city staff if they could look into the strategies of “cities who do not comply (with Housing Element Law).”
At the Nov. 14, 2022 meeting, even as the council members showed their support for the new market-rate developments, Councilmember Lynne Ashbeck said she was not so sure that they made economic sense, because the public will have to subsidize the proposed high-end homes.
“The property tax doesn’t cover the cost of more houses,” she added. “[The city] doesn’t make money on this at all.” Per city documents, the city will have to study the fiscal impact of the developments, if they are annexed into Clovis later on. The property-tax sharing agreement between Clovis and Fresno County will also need to be renegotiated.
Still, Ashbeck’s belief that the developments were a net drain on the city did not dissuade her from supporting the project. Bessinger, who also voted for the Wilson development to go forward, was primarily funded this campaign season by the region’s top real estate developers, including Wilson Homes.
With the De Novo contract, the council gave its approval to start a 12- to 16-month environmental review process, which is needed to get permission from a local oversight agency to incorporate the plot of land into Clovis’ designated planning zone.
Such a study would allow the city to devote planning resources to the area in the future, including how best to displace the salamanders, as well as hook up water, sewer and roads to the yet-unbuilt developments later on.
For years, Clovis city leaders hoped for growth in the area. A multi-lane expansion on Shepherd Avenue near the proposed project, in the middle of farm fields, was already built as early as 2011, Google Maps show.
The area was slated to get a $33 million upgrade from the version of Measure C that voters rejected last month.
If Measure C had passed, Fresno County taxpayers would have paid for state-of-the-art high-speed internet hookups for the new high-end homes in the area.