Fresno Aiming to Be ‘Nuclear Free’ : City Voting Tuesday on Measure to Bar Atomic Weapons

Times Staff Writer

While the heart of the San Joaquin Valley may seem an unlikely place to find a vigorous peace movement, Fresno might soon become the largest city in the state to declare itself a “nuclear-free zone.”

On Tuesday, voters in the thriving agribusiness community of 275,000 will decide Measure B, a City Charter amendment that would prohibit the design, manufacture, transport or storage of nuclear weapons or their component parts within the city.

Even opponents of the proposition concede that their chances of defeating the measure are slim because there are no manufacturing plants or jobs that would be directly affected, although the Fresno Chamber of Commerce warns that such a law might scare away new industry.


“This measure will send the message that we, the people of Fresno, support a bilateral nuclear freeze,” said Fresno Free Zone Committee Chairman Darren Belk, spark plug of the drive to place the city off limits to the builders of nuclear weapons.

Ordinance With Teeth

“We have a chance to pass a real zoning ordinance, with teeth in it. If a company attempts to make gyroscopes for cruise missiles, we would shut them down,” said City Councilman Chris Peterson, who led the council’s 4-2 vote to put the issue on the ballot.

The ordinance would also forbid the city’s participation in civil defense against nuclear attack, and directs the city government to establish “sister city” relationships with communities elsewhere in the world that might seek to declare themselves nuclear free zones, Peterson said.

If the measure passes, Fresno will become the 11th and largest city in the state to take such action. In addition, there are nuclear-free-zone campaigns under way in 27 other California communities, according to Albert Donnay, director of the national Nuclear Free America movement.

Eighty communities across the country have passed similar laws or resolutions, he said. The measure has been defeated in 14 cities, including every place where it would have had an immediate economic effect.

In Fresno, the issue has sparked a lively debate in the local newspaper’s letters-to-the-editor column. One proponent wrote, “Let’s exercise our democracy by making this powerful and timely statement that will demonstrate . . . that Fresno understands that there can be no winners, only losers in a nuclear war.”


‘Makes Soviets Feel Good’

“To declare Fresno a nuclear-free zone only makes the Soviets feel good,” an opponent wrote the Fresno Bee. Another added: “This measure is dangerous. It hides the fact that we will all be sitting ducks.”

Support for the measure comes from churches, peace groups and minority organizations, according to Peterson.

Opponents of the nuclear-free zone designation, led by the Fresno Chamber of Commerce, have spent little time or money trying to defeat the measure, even chamber officials agree. No one even thought to file an opposing statement for distribution with sample ballots.

The chamber fears that the amendment would give Fresno an “anti-business” image, according to Dina Zenovich, the chamber’s spokeswoman on this issue.

‘What Would Be Next?’

“New manufacturing industries wouldn’t come here because (passage of Measure B) would be the start of an effort to put flaky laws on the books,” Zenovich said. “What would be next? Rent control? City income tax?” The new zone would require a “Big Brother bureaucracy spending thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on enforcement,” she said.

“The idea of making a statement is good, but this is a federal issue, and we delude people if we try to create the impression that local government can enact effective legislation,” said Mayor Dale Doig, who opposed putting the measure on the ballot.

If the measure passes, Doig said, it could have a negative effect on the California Air National Guard jet fighter unit stationed at the Fresno Air Terminal. And that involves “a thousand people and a multimillion-dollar payroll,” the mayor warned.

Although National Guard officials will not say whether nuclear weapons have been or will be stored at their air terminal facilities, proponents of Measure B contend that since the federal and state constitutions take priority over such issues, the charter amendment would have no effect on the guard’s military operations.