Wonderful Pistachios gets not so wonderful news

Tulare County Board of Supervisors votes unanimously to deny Wonderful Pistachio’s appeal to revoke ARO Pistachio’s building permits that would allow them to increase their capacity during what is expected to be a record pistachio harvest

VISALIA – Last week the Tulare County Board of Supervisors heard two arguments over their permitting process from competing pistachio farmers. And they unanimously decided that permitting ARO Pistachios to add to their presence on their Terra Bella plant was by the book.

At the Aug. 25 meeting assistant director for the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA), Aaron Bock, made clear to the board that permits for ARO Pistachios were for three pistachio storage silos with catwalks and stair system. And another permit that allows for up to eight more silos, four dryers, one receiving pit, one pre-cleaner and one wet huller. Wonderful Pistachios is disputing the RMA issued permits from May 20 and June 2 of this year that allowed ARO Pistachios to make those changes effectively expanding their capacity to process pistachios.

ARO’s side of things

Wonderful initially argued in a July 14 lawsuit in Tulare County Superior court that the permit were “illegally issued” with a potential record harvest fast approaching. And ARO Pistachio’s co-counsel with Jennifer Hernandez called foul on Wonderful for trying to use the law to gather a competitive advantage.

“This is an effort by a competitor to use this board to overturn an utterly routine processing equipment applications in this county. It is a business competitor tactic. This same competitor has gone to Tulare County Court and now its appeal to you is futile,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez argued that the courts have been consistent on the front of building permit issuance, giving leeway to the expertise of local administrators.

“This is a business dispute. There is a lawsuit between these two parties in Fresno over competitive issues,” Hernandez said. “Even California Supreme Court has said you can’t use the [California Environmental Quality Act] as a tool to advance a competitive interest. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try, and that’s what the Wonderful Co. is attempting to do here.”

Last year in Fresno County Wonderful sued another jurisdiction over permits issued to Touchstone for a new plant in western Fresno County.

As of January of this year, Wonderful was successful in shutting down the construction underway and required Touchstone to go back to the approval stage with the county. The proposed plant with 49, 52-foot-tall silos won’t be operating this year as an effect. Still Touchstone reapplied to Fresno County in June 2020.

In Fresno, Wonderful employed California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) rules to bolster their arguments. The strategy appears clear: block this rival former partner from ramping up production. In that case the county, under a settlement with the Assemi family that owns ARO Pistachios, issued a stop-work order after finding unpermitted construction on the property near Cantua Creek, not far from Interstate 5.

Hernandez went on to state that Wonderful’s argument is several years too late to begin with.

“Statute for limitations are 35 or 60 days, it is not timely to challenge discretionary decisions. We are talking about decisions that are more than two to 10 years old,” Hernandez said.

ARO Pistachios chief of plant operations, Mark Sherrell spoke to the board to note that their Terra Bella plant meets many of the company’s needs.

“The Terra Bella facility meets our long- and short-term needs and we moved forward and executed that sale. We expanded the facility from 25 million to 50 million pounds,” Sherrell said. “We have 130 employees today and 240 in peak harvest mid-September through mid-October.”

ARO Pistachios CEO and founder, Farid Assemi spoke before the close of the hearing and expressed his thoughts on Wonderful Pistachios using CEQA as a tool for their competitive advantage.

“One of most confused and abused laws in our state is CEQA. In 40 years in business, I have never abused this law for competitive advantage,” Assemi said.

Following rebuttals from both attorneys, and a brief closed session for the supervisors, District 1 Board Supervisor Kuyler Crocker asked whether the process ARO went through was different than any other.

“This is nothing new or out of the ordinary for Tulare County,” Bock said.

District 3 Board Supervisor Amy Shuklian said that there is no additional land being taken for the project and asked whether the county had issued any other permits to ARO.

“Wonderful themselves have had quite a few minor modifications themselves. Even the appellant has had this type of permit done,” Bock said.

Chairman of the board, Pete Vander Poel said that he had received several calls on the matter and they were consistently in favor of supporting ARO Pistachios.

Supervisor Dennis Townsend motioned to deny Wonderful’s appeal of ARO’s building permit and Crocker second it before a unanimous vote.

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