Cheese Plant Moving Forward

A 300,000-square-foot cheese factory finally has the go-ahead for construction in Tulare after clearing a final hurdle in a years-long approval process.

At its August 18 meeting, the Tulare City Council OK’d the sale of a 59-acre plot at the corner of Paige Avenue and Enterprise Street, adjacent to the city waste-water treatment plant. Purchasing the land is CaliCheese Company LLC, which plans to spend $350 million to build a whey and cheese-making facility that will eventually employ more than 200 people full-time to process four million pounds of milk a day. The company will pay $2.09 million for the site.

Neighbors Raised Concerns

But it wasn’t the city’s final nod that CaliCheese needed before going ahead. First, it had to appease its future neighbors in the nearby unincorporated community of the Matheny Tract, who raised objections to the project because of its lack of an environmental impact report.

At one time, the site at 2900 W. Paige Avenue was slated for construction of a meat-processing plant, but that plan was halted by a series of lawsuits. CaliCheese, following the prompting of the Tulare County Economic Development Board, took an interest in the land, but came up against opposition from Matheny Tract residents who were concerned about increased traffic, loss of water and pollution. They have since agreed not to raise additional objections, following a set of concessions by CaliCheese.

Jobs and Job Training Offered

Ashley Werner, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA) representing the Matheny Tract Committee, says her clients have pledged not to challenge the construction plan again after CaliCheese pledged $120,000 to provide job training to the area’s residents.

“They (Matheny Tract Committee) entered into an agreement with CaliCheese that they felt was in their best interest, and part of that is not to challenge the EIR,” Werner said. “The potential for odor was a concern. We looked at similar plants, like the one in Hilmar. Residents in the area had complained about the odor and even flakes of white material on their cars.”

The residents were also concerned about the number of delivery trucks that would have to visit the plant to deliver the four million pounds of milk each day, a number that may eventually rise to six million pounds a day, as well as the increased traffic from employees traveling to and from the site. That fear should be lessened by the concessions Werner was able to secure. Werner also said CaliCheese has agreed to a set of guidelines for redressing any future problems its plant may create.

“CaliCheese has also agreed in this process to do job training in the community and is giving them (Matheny Tract residents) job preference,” she said. “It could potentially cut down on car traffic from employees going to that site.”

Water Woes

Also a concern for neighbors was the amount of water the plant will consume. With the area already facing water scarcity, the plant will use some 225,000 gallons of water a day, and Matheny Tract residents were concerned it planned to get it from the municipal supply. The city had previously agreed to extend its water system to the Matheny Tract, but has yet to complete the hookup.

“Over the last year, they’ve been delaying that service, in part because they had concerns about the availability of water,” Werner said. “Based on the additional info in the EIR, they felt comfortable it was not going to affect the area.”

No Impact Report

Before it could feel comfortable with the environmental report, one had to actually be written for the CaliCheese project, as the Tulare Planning Commission approved the project initially using the EIR for the now-defunct meat-processing plant plan. It was that lack of an EIR that was the basis for MTC’s objections.

“We were able to get a first EIR for this plant,” said Werner. “The director had given go-ahead based on an EIR for that location for a meat plant.”

Instead of drawing on Tulare’s water, the cheese plant will rely on two wells located at the city’s waste-water treatment facility that are not connected to the municipal water supply. Water from the plant will be treated at the adjacent waste-water plant.

Keeping the Lights On

This is not the first time LCJA has acquired concessions from a business hoping to open in the area. In 2012, the firm was able to get Colony Energy, which is in the process of constructing a bio-gas plant near the Matheny Tract, to agree to help improve conditions in the low-income area to avoid a possibly costly lawsuit. Colony, which received a $5 million grant from the state in January to help fund construction of the Tulare plant, will provide streetlights to the Matheny Tract and pay the power bill for them for a decade. In exchange the MTC will not sue to demand an EIR for the project.

According to Colony’s website, the facility will produce about 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel a day by capturing methane from decaying ag waste, manure, carcasses, solid waste from cities and food scraps from grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias. The plant will accept up to 500 tons of such waste per day.

Community Getting First Park

Lastly, the agreement between the MTC and CaliCheese will see the first development of a park in the area, Werner said, using part of the $120,000 CaliCheese has pledged.

“They don’t have any green space,” she said of the Matheny Tract. “It’s important to the community members to have somewhere for their children to play.”

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