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Ordinance on new disease labs in Fresno wins initial City Council approval. What will it do?

An ordinance to regulate new laboratories dealing with infectious diseases in the city of Fresno – and adding criminal penalties for those who violate their approved operating permits – cleared its first step toward becoming law Thursday with unanimous approval of the Fresno City Council.

The “Infectious Disease Lab Accountability and Transparency Ordinance,” authored by Councilmembers Garry Bredefeld, Miguel Arias and Nelson Esparza, will now be up for final approval Sept. 14. If the council adopts the bill on that date, it will take effect in mid-October.

The ordinance arose from the discovery in late December 2022 of a laboratory operating illegally in an old warehouse in downtown Reedley, where it had relocated after several years in south Fresno. The existence of the Reedley lab wasn’t made public until late July, when Reedley’s weekly Mid Valley Times newspaper broke the story.

Since that time, it’s been revealed that the laboratory’s operators, Universal Meditech, wanted to relocate back to the city of Fresno in an industrial building north of the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Earlier this week, Bredefeld and Arias accused attorneys for Fresno County of trying to “scare” local health clinics by sending emails suggesting that the language of the city’s proposed ordinance may make it applicable to their current operations. In a press conference Wednesday, and again at Thursday’s council meeting, the pair sought to make the distinction.

“To be clear, the ordinance does not apply to existing health care facilities, but only new applicants who week to establish dangerous infectious disease labs in the city of Fresno,” Arias said Wednesday. “None of these (health clinics or medical offices) are infectious disease labs. They take your sample, they ship it off to a lab, it gets processed in a lab. That’s the vast majority of the health care operations that we see at these medical facilities.”

“Those labs are currently operating, so they would not be in need of submitting a new application for their operations,” Arias added.

Bredefeld reiterated that point Thursday, confirming with City Attorney Andrew Janz that the ordinance relates only to new lab permit applications.

“The ordinance is clear that this applies to new applications; we can’t legally go back and make existing labs submit new applications,” Janz told The Fresno Bee on Friday. “And by the way, if there’s any ambiguity – there isn’t any – then a court would look at legislative intent. The authors of this ordinance have said over and over again that this does not apply to existing labs.”

What will the ordinance do?

Eariler this month, Bredefeld described the ordinance to The Bee as “an effort to ensure greater accountability, greater transparency and greater protection for the people that we represent.” He added that he hoped it would also spur state and federal officials to close loopholes that leave privately funded labs largely unregulated – and spur greater transparency by county leaders.

Laboratories are considered to be a “by right” use in the city’s industrial zoning districts, meaning they can be approved by the director of Fresno’s Planning and Development Department without review from either the Fresno Planning Commission or Fresno City Council. That won’t change. But the law, if approved, requires the planning director to notify the City Council of any new lab applications within 30 days.

It also requires the planning director to provide public notice to all businesses, property owners and residents within 1,000 feet of the proposed location no less than 15 days before approval of any zoning clearance or land-use permit for a lab.

The ordinance addresses some of the infectious agents that investigators with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found stored in refrigerators and freezers in the Reedley warehouse, including COVID-19, rubella, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS and malaria, as well as others ranging from tuberculosis and polio to chickenpox and anthrax.

Other key points of the ordinance are:

  • Requiring any would-be operator of an infectious disease lab to first get all necessary local, state and federal licensing.

  • Requiring any potential lab operator to submit a “notice of intent to operate (an) infectious disease laboratory” to the city’s planning department before applying for any city entitlement or permit to operate.

  • Making violations of the ordinance a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail; and authorizing the city attorney to refer possible felony violations to the Fresno County District Attorney or the state Department of Justice.

“The fines and the misdemeanor will apply not just to the business but also the property owner,” Arias told The Bee last week. “We want to be very clear that property owners have a legal responsibility to ensure that their properties are being used for the purposes they’re leasing them for, so they can’t be a hands-off type of … a landlord.”

City inspectors will be asked to inspect labs not only for violations of city codes, but also to review whether they are operating within the limits of their permits, including hazardous-materials permits granted by Fresno County, Bredefeld and Arias told The Bee.

The city has requested a full list of hazardous-materials permits issued by the county for facilities within the Fresno city limits.