Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Perea’s AB 327 moves ahead, despite Sierra Club opposition

Assembly Bill 327 hasn’t received a lot of attention as it has wound its way through the state Legislature, but its author — Assembly Member Henry T. Perea — says it will likely lead to lower electricity bills in the Valley.

“This bill is a huge win for Central Valley residents, in terms of their pocketbooks and energy bills,” the Fresno Democrat said.

Assembly Member Henry T. Perea

AB 327 cleared its latest hurdle on Friday, passing out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But while tweaks to the proposed legislation have won over some skeptics, the Sierra Club remains opposed.

A Sierra Club memo on the bill says it was “written by the state’s three big utilities” and concludes: “The proposed change in electric rate design would create the most radical shift in how we pay for electricity since the energy crisis of 2001.”

Last week, the environmental organization purchased a full-page ad in The Bee to highlight its concerns about the bill.

Evan Gillespie, the Western Region Deputy Director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, says Perea’s bill will impose a monthly fixed charge of up to $10 on each customer, and increase the cost of electricity for those who use the least power.

It will, he said, have a chilling effect on the state’s growing solar movement because people paying $120 annually no matter how little power they use will start thinking twice about solar. He also said the fixed charge could increase in later years.

Finally, the Sierra Club says the bill enables utilities to raise lower-tier rates for the first time since the energy crisis, and to reduce rates in the more costly upper tiers.

Perea doesn’t dispute much of what the Sierra Club says.

Yes, the bill includes a fixed charge, but he said it will initially be somewhere around $2 or $3 monthly, and will take years to reach $10. It is needed, he said, to maintain the power grid’s essential infrastructure.

As it is now, Perea said, those without solar are picking up the grid infrastructure maintenance costs for those who have solar. It is, he said, unfair.

The other thing that is unfair, he said, is that the Valley pays more for electricity because of the summer heat.

At its heart, the proposed legislation would give power back to the state’s Public Utilities Commission to set electricity rates. It will also take the state’s four power-use tiers and make them into two, Perea said.

Under the tiered system, users who use less stay in the cheaper lower tiers. Those who use more — especially during peak times — move into the more expensive upper tiers.

Valley residents, Perea said, move too fast into the upper tiers.

“When it’s 110 for 20 days in Fresno, nobody’s turning off their air conditioner,” Perea said. “We’re never out of the higher tiers.”

The bill has changed a bit from its Assembly beginnings and now includes an increased discount for low-income users, and that has won support for the bill not only from the state’s public utilities — including Pacific Gas & Electric — but others such as AARP and the Utility Reform Network, a customer advocacy group.

But Gillespie — who said rates in hotter climates like the Valley are already climate adjusted — said the bottom line is that those who use less energy will see their bills increase, and those who use more will see their bills decrease.

It is also bad news for conservation, he said.

Vidak takes a swing at re-voting on high-speed rail

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

Newly minted state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is pitching a series of amendments to legislation in hopes of getting California’s controversial high-speed rail project back before the state’s voters.

On Monday, Vidak offered the amendments to a bill by Assembly Member Jim Frazier, D-Oakley. Frazier’s bill was not taken up this week by the state Senate, but if it comes up for a vote next week, the senate would need to decide whether or not to consider Vidak’s amendments.

Frazier’s bill deals with allocating duties that used to be part of the now-defunct Business, Transportation and Housing Agency to the state’s new Transportation Agency.

Vidak’s amendments would put the high-speed rail project, originally approved by California voters as Proposition 1A in 2008,  on the November 2014 ballot. It would also add language to Frazier’s bill to bar using money from the sale of Prop. 1A high-speed rail bonds for high-speed rail and block the sale of future bonds.

Another amendment calls for changing state law “as quickly as possible to prevent any further funding of a high-speed passenger train system that differs in both cost and substance from the project approved by voters in 2008.”

Vidak’s efforts are no doubt popular in his stomping grounds of Kings County, where the county’s Board of Supervisors and two residents are suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, alleging that the statewide rail plan violates Prop. 1A. Earlier this month, a judge agreed, but has yet to figure out how to remedy the violation.

“I’m simply asking to let people re-vote on high-speed rail,” Vidak said in a written statement. “This runaway money train needs to be returned to the station before another taxpayer penny is spent.”

Even Vidak’s staff, however, acknowledged that his amendments are unlikely to make any headway in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature.

Yosemite Conservancy to help restore damaged areas in Rim fire

The Yosemite Conservancy is raising money to restore damage from the Rim fire, which has charred more than 200,000 acres of wildland in the Stanislaus National Forest and part of Yosemite National park.

The conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and improving Yosemite, will use donations to help restore trails, facilities and natural habitat in the region.

“We anticipate that significant work will be needed to restore areas affected in the park once the heroic efforts of firefighters are completed,” said conservancy president Mike Tollefson.

Donations to the Yosemite Fire Restoration Fund can be made online at or by mailing a contribution to Yosemite Conservancy, Yosemite Fire Restoration Fund, 101 Montgomery, Suite 1700, San Francisco, CA 94104.

To view areas of the park, visit Yosemite Conservancy’s webcams at

 Most of Yosemite remains open, smoke free and accessible three entrances — Highway 41, fhe south entrance, and Highway 140, a western entrance, and the east entrance at Tioga Pass. Highway 120 remains closed from the west.

Up-to-date information about the Rim Fire is on the park’s website at:

After fire, elementary school gets new playground

Webster Elementary school got a new playground this week after its old one was destroyed by a fire in July.

Susan Bedi, spokeswoman for Fresno Unified School District, said the district chipped in $17,000 to replace the play equipment. The new structure is made of fiberglass and steel.

Bedi said police suspect the fire on July 8 was the result of arson. She said no arrest has been made.

Here’s a photo of the fire-damaged structure:

Webster Elementary’s play equipment was damaged by a fire on July 8. Photo submitted by Fresno Unified School District.

And the new one:

A new fiberglass and steel playground was installed this week. Photo submitted by Fresno Unified School District.

Real Estate: Wathen-Castanos back in Clovis with new development

Homebuilder Wathen-Castanos Hybrid Homes has returned to Clovis with two new developments after a nearly two-year hiatus from the area to build homes in the south Valley and Paso Robles.

Construction is underway on the model homes for Artisan, a 68-home development at Harlan Ranch, northeast Clovis’ master-planned community. The homes will be built in the northeast corner of the community where Shepherd Avenue meets Highway 168, said Peter Castanos, director of sales.

“We’re happy to be back out in the Clovis market after being in Paso Robles, Hanford, Lemoore and Visalia where we’re still building,” Castanos said. “The success of those projects in the south Valley and the Central Coast have given us this opportunity to come back to Clovis.”

The single and two-story homes at Harlan Ranch will vary in size from 1,622 to 2,495 square feet on lots that are 4,593- to 10,775-square-feet in size. Prices have not been determined yet, Castanos said.

The models are expected to be finished by December for a January opening.

Wathen-Castanos is also building large homes in its Legacy neighborhood across the street from Harlan Ranch, west of De Wolfe Avenue. The 9-lot development is almost sold out. Only two lots remain.

The Legacy homes start at 3,000 square feet and will be built on 16,000 square feet lots or larger.

Table Mountain Rancheria leads fundraising effort to stop casinos

Table Mountain Rancheria is leading the fundraising effort backing a referendum to stop off-reservation Indian gaming in California.

In the first month after the formation of an organization to get a measure on the ballot to stop gaming that is not on Indian lands, more than $700,000 was raised.

Table Mountain has contributed $350,000, according to California Secretary of State expenditure records. To get on the 2014 election ballot the referendum requires more than 504,760 signatures by Oct. 1.

The referendum’s proponent is Cheryl Schmit, director of Northern California-based Stand Up For California, a group that opposes gaming that is not on tribal land.
The money was donated to Keep Vegas-Style Casinos Out of Neighborhoods, a project of Stand Up For California.

The fight is focused against the North Fork Mono Rancheria Indians, whose off-reservation casino project was approved earlier this year by the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as the Oroville-based Enterprise Maidu tribe, which is awaiting state approval for a casino near Marysville.

Schmit said she has been encouraged by the donations made to the campaign so far.

The other major donor for the referendum is Brigade Capital Management, which has given $261,100, the Secretary of State’s office said. Brigade Management is the major investor in the restructured Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino bonds.

Another $76,440 was donated from two more financial firms. Club One Casino in downtown Fresno also contributed $15,000, state records show.

Real Estate: Fewer foreclosures in Fresno

Here’s a short one for those of you keeping track of foreclosures.

Fewer Fresno homeowners are falling victim to foreclosure, according to the July residential and foreclosure sales report from RealtyTrac.

One in every 1,316 homes in the city of Fresno received a foreclosure notice in July, the report said. Last year, the odds were higher with one in every 56 homes receiving a notice.

Visit RealtyTrac for a full report.



Real Estate: New California program helps homebuyers with downpayment

The California Housing Finance Agency has started a new program to help first-time homebuyers receive thousands of dollars in downpayment assistance.

Through CalPLUS, qualified low- to moderate-income buyers can receive a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage that includes a zero interest second loan that buyers can use for a downpayment.

The downpayment loan can be for as much as 3.5% of the first mortgage amount. It does not have to be repaid until the home is sold, refinanced or paid in full.

“Since its inception, CalHFA has focused on helping Californians become homeowners, strengthening communities and neighborhoods,” said Claudia Cappio, executive director. “Down payments continue to be one of today’s biggest obstacles for first-time homebuyers. This new program is aimed at bridging that gap for California families.”

A family taking out a $200,000 mortgage, for example, could receive up to $7,000 in down payment assistance through the zero interest program.

CalPLUS can be combined with other state and federal programs that help to offset downpayment or mortgage costs.

For more information, visit or call (877) 922-5432.

Rim fire: Pray the wind doesn’t shift

Pyrocumulus clouds rising above Groveland near the Rim fire.

So far, the Rim fire at Yosemite National Park’s western doorstep hasn’t smoked out the San Joaquin Valley. Pray the wind doesn’t shift.

If you’ve seen the photographs of the immense pyrocumulus clouds erupting over the Sierra, you know it’s a pretty intense wildfire.

I’ve talked with fire experts who say you can see the clouds for 100 miles in all directions.

Pyrocumulus clouds occur with the high heat of volcanoes and wildfires. They look like cauliflower, rising tens of thousands of feet high with ash and vapor.

This is the biggest fire on the Stanislaus National Forest in a generation, now approaching 180,000 acres. On Tuesday, it ranked as the seventh largest in recorded state history.

The ash has been riding the wind into places north of the fire, such as Reno and Sacramento. In Sacramento, the PM-2.5 — think soot — standard has been breached nine times this month. That’s more than Sacramento has seen in August for the last decade combined.

Meanwhile in the Valley, which sometimes is socked in with wildfire soot, there haven’t been any PM-2.5 breaches in the standard.  Keep an eye on the weather and the wind. This fire may hang around through September, I’m told.

Fresno Unified gets ad-free version of Bing search engine

Fresno Unified students will soon have access to ad-free online browsing using Microsoft’s Bing search engine as part of a pilot program aimed at boosting students’ privacy and blocking adult content.

The district is one of several across the nation taking part in the trial. It’s the first time a major search engine has given schools the choice to nix ads from students’ search results. Los Angeles Unified is also giving the search engine a whirl.

Called “Bing for Schools,” the pilot program offers schools extra incentives: for every search students type in, the school gets “credits” — and 30,000 of those credits earn the school a free Microsoft Surface RT tablet.

I talked with Kurt Madden, chief technology officer at Fresno Unified, and Bill Cox, senior director of product management at Microsoft, about the new search option.

Madden said the new version will offer less cluttered web searches and tailor search results to topics most relevant to students. Students won’t be required to use Bing, but he said that engine is already the default at Fresno Unified schools.

The engine will also sift out mature content. That’s a big concern at schools, Madden said, where students can inadvertently be directed to search results meant for adults.

“The internet provides a vast number of resources to students,” Madden said, “but it also provides many resources that are inappropriate. So you try to filter out and use the best filters possible to make sure the kids get the stuff they’re supposed to get.”

Cox said setting up the free service will be easy. Any computer within the district’s network will automatically be redirected to the Bing for Schools site when they visit

He declined to say whether other Bing users can expect the ad-free option in the future.