Mary Meninga knows a thing or two about the lack of environmental justice in Manteca.
The longtime resident and her neighbors have had to live with years of the city taking a “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to increasing truck traffic on Lathrop Road despite the fact it’s not a truck route.
The noise, window rattling, and exhaust fumes from big rigs that were not making local deliveries as allowed by law is bad enough as is Lathrop Road’s de facto status as a speedway.
Now she’s about to lose her home thanks to short-sighted city planning that failed to account for a need to expand water treatment operations at a nearby water tank.
Meninga instead of being bitter has decided to make sure others in Manteca aren’t marginalized by growth.
To do so she is pushing for an environmental justice section in the update of the city’s general plan — the state mandated blueprint for growth — that Manteca is in the process of adopting. Actually there’s more to it than that. She wants to form an advocacy group to make sure Manteca going forward follows its general plan goals instead of adopting them and then — in many cases —paying lip service while nicely ignoring them. Call it monitoring, if you like. But it reality it’s more of a case of making sure the city — and ultimately elected leaders who have to adopt the general plan update — keep their word to the people of Manteca.
Senate Bill 1000 known as the Healthy Communities Act that was signed into law in 2016 by then Gov. Jerry Brown is designed to make sure disadvantaged populations are not unduly impacted by environmental toxins as well as have equitable access to the public making process.
In their defense, city officials might argue they duly notice public meetings and notify specific property owners that may reside within 300 feet of a proposed project as required by law.
Meninga lives in the real world. She knows how difficult it is for people to juggle work and families along with killer commutes that makes providing input at public forums shaping growth more than a challenge. She also knows the 300 foot notification range mandated by state law fails to take into account the city in approving a large distribution center may comply with notifying immediate neighboring property owners but often do not those who live outside the 300 foot mandate who very well may have their quality of life substantially altered by a proposed project.
It is why she is working to form an advocacy group to give voice to those who get lost in the proverbial hustle and bustle. She is relying on resources provided by the Catholic Charities that offers advisors not to advocate per se for disadvantaged segments of the population but to provide guidance when needed to build the framework of an effective advocacy group.
The notion of environmental justice wouldn’t be needed if cities paid heed to their own general plan goals adopted to please the minimalistic requirements of the state.
Affordable housing market is perhaps the most egregious example. Manteca’s municipal staff in past years when called to task by elected officials — the most recent being Richard Silverman when he served on the council — whether Manteca met the state affordable housing mandate always answered in the affirmative. That’s because the state’s minimum requirement is that polices be in place and enough land earmarked on a map to “encourage” and “accommodate” affordable housing. It is clear Manteca is failing miserably at implementing the affordable housing section of the general plan’s housing element.
It is easy to blame it on developers but in reality the real issue is the city. They hold the keys to the kingdom when it comes to development.
They can implement and enforce requirements on subdivision maps but haven’t. Worse yet at least three developers in recent years have tried to build affordable housing — which is not low-income housing but housing that someone making between 80 to 120 percent of the median household income of Manteca can afford to buy or rent — and have encountered enough turbulence at the staff level, less than enthusiastic reaction from elected officials and outright hostility from neighbors to tone down or derail efforts to do so.
It runs the gamut from combating small lots and two car garages that “stacked” cars requiring one to be parked in front of the other that happened during the Great Recession to the wholesale rejection of Richland Communities plan to build hundreds of more affordable in South Manteca backing up to — and down the street from — 3,500-square-foot homes on lots 8,000 square feet and larger.
That’s just one example of injustices that are perpetuated with little regard to seriously implementing the general plan that costs the city in excess of $250,000 to update.
If the city had a more robust implementation of general plan goals environmental justice would be more of a moot issue.
The general plan aside, the entire planning process as structured gives the public — and disadvantaged communities by extension — a small voice that gets drowned in the planning process.
That’s because the work that moves projects forward is done out of the public eye with developers working with staff over the course of months if not years. By the time it surfaces for public review there is a lot of “buy in” with the bureaucracy and the development community. There is a limited window for those impacted to respond and organize to make sure their interests are protected.
It is especially true when it comes to those caught in the path of progress with limited resources on top of limited time to react.
That is where Meninga hopes a community advocacy group can enter the picture to even the playing field somewhat.
How much different would the outcome have been in the rural area just south of Manteca that know have cross levees and an expressway aimed at their homes had they been plugged more effectively into issues from the start and able to build on an existing citizens advocacy group.
There is power in numbers plus knowledge is power.
Meninga hopes to get residents together so they can learn what organizations and resources there are not to fight city hall as much as to make sure they have an effective voice when government decisions are being made that can alter the quality of life in their neighborhoods.
And having a local advocacy group that people who feel the quality of life is being compromised by growth-related decisions when a specific issue comes up regarding their neighborhoods can turn to for assistance will make it much more likely their concerns will be heard. And, if necessarily, provide them the road map and resources available to mount a challenge if a decision is made that will result in their basic right to live, work, play, in a clean and healthy environment being compromised.
Meninga can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.