Planned Parenthood Sought A Building Permit. Then A California City Changed Zoning Rules

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — The war over abortion is raging in statehouses around the country, but in California, a bastion of reproductive rights, the fight has shifted to local battlegrounds.

In the Inland Empire region, Planned Parenthood is suing the city of Fontana, alleging its officials are illegally blocking its plans for a new clinic.

The health organization’s leaders said Fontana is rejecting the clinic for religious and political reasons while hiding those intentions behind zoning restrictions. Planned Parenthood accused the mayor and city council of trying an end around of California’s abortion rights laws in an effort to appease local abortion opponents.

“Despite having pro-reproductive rights champions in the Legislature and state offices, what we’re experiencing in Fontana is part of a trend, where conservative local officials are trying to restrict access to abortion and reproductive care, even in states like California,” said Sadaf Rahmani, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties.

Fontana city council members and its administration refused CalMatters’ requests for interviews. Fontana spokesperson Monique Carter cited pending litigation.

In April Fontana officials issued a statement saying its actions are not intended to halt the Planned Parenthood clinic, but to advance the city’s long-term vision for its downtown.

Since 2022 a state constitutional amendment has enshrined Californians’ right to abortion. Political leaders have positioned the state as a haven for people seeking to end pregnancies, putting California in opposition to the 21 states that have restricted — or virtually eliminated — abortion access.

But the fight continues at the local level in several California cities, between state politicians determined to guard abortion rights and local officials who want to limit them.

Last year a specialized clinic in Beverly Hills that would have provided abortions in a woman’s third term of pregnancy to treat serious health complications lost its lease amid anti-abortion protests. And in 2022 a proposed Planned Parenthood clinic in Visalia, in the San Joaquin Valley, was postponed indefinitely amid opposition.

In Fontana the fight centers on recent changes to a city planning document.

Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties signed a lease in 2022 to open a new clinic in a commercial area of Fontana’s downtown and spent a year completing permit applications and revising design standards for the space. For instance, the lawsuit says, the city planning director insisted the clinic should have a trellis with a mosaic pattern, embellished with vines.

Planned Parenthood officials said they were on track for approval of the facility last year but began seeing hostility toward the proposed clinic, as some residents condemned plans for abortion services.

“Members of the City Council repeatedly heard inflammatory arguments — even at City meetings where the Fontana Clinic was not intended to be discussed — by anti-abortion advocates seeking to deprive women of essential healthcare,” the lawsuit states.

The city council appeared to invite that opposition, the lawsuit charges, pointing to a June meeting at which the invited chaplain delivered an invocation denouncing abortion.

Planned Parenthood filed its final permit application last July, officials said. But a week later the council approved an “urgency ordinance” prohibiting “service based, non-entertainment uses” in the area of the proposed clinic. The moratorium remains in place until later this July but could be extended, the city’s April statement said.

The urgency ordinance cited the Fontana general plan and identified the downtown core area as a “hub for dining, shopping and entertainment.” Without such restrictions, the ordinance states, applicants could open businesses in conflict with that goal, creating a “threat to the public health, safety, and welfare.”

To Planned Parenthood that’s a stretch. In December the nonprofit sued Fontana, arguing the city council illegally added the entertainment hub carve-out to its general plan just to keep Planned Parenthood from offering abortion and other health services there.

It’s unclear what entertainment businesses are located in the neighborhood, or if the addition of a new health clinic would alter its character. The site of the proposed clinic is a beige brick building bordered by a chain-link fence. Neighboring businesses include several dental offices, an acupuncturist, chiropractor, tire shops, car washes and restaurants.

City officials deny targeting Planned Parenthood, saying in their April statement that the zoning restrictions affect 70 applicants in the downtown area. City officials did not respond to a CalMatters request for the names of those applicant businesses.

Fontana officials said they launched a study in 2021 with the goal of establishing a downtown commercial entertainment district, which led to the development moratorium. They didn’t say when the study would be completed.

“The ordinance is neither illegal nor targeted toward blocking the construction of a Planned Parenthood health center,” the city stated. “Rather, it is part of a broader, thoughtful community planning effort to promote economic development throughout the city and contribute towards the revitalization of downtown Fontana.”

In mid-May several dozen Planned Parenthood supporters demonstrated at a Fontana City Council meeting to protest the permit denial, wearing matching pink shirts and bearing signs in favor of the clinic. A pink mobile billboard read “Let Planned Parenthood in Fontana,” as drivers passing City Hall honked in response.

“Because of all the substantial health care services that this facility offers, it is so heart-breaking to know that the city has denied them the ability to move forward and open,” said Liz Sena, co-founder of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition.

Organizers say Fontana needs the clinic because of the area’s low median individual incomes and health risks, including poor air quality, rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and low birth weight babies.

Planned Parenthood operates six clinics in Orange County and three in San Bernardino County which served more than 139,000 patients in fiscal 2022. The proposed Fontana clinic would provide about 16,000 to 32,000 patient visits annually for reproductive health care, primary care, nutrition services and education.

Though the proposed clinic wasn’t on the city council agenda for the May 14 meeting, speakers nonetheless lined up to deliver one-minute statements.

“As a medically underserved region, a health center with affordable or no-cost health care is needed now more than ever,” said Emiliana Martinez, communications manager at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.

Fontana resident Julia Bohl described receiving gender-affirming care through an existing Planned Parenthood clinic: “It is a human right, the right to bodily autonomy and right to choice.”

Opponents at the council meeting described their concerns about Planned Parenthood’s intentions.

“You need to be aware of a disturbing fact,” said a speaker who called herself Maria P. “Planned Parenthood does not want to build their clinic for Fontana citizens. They want to build their clinic for an outflow of abortion-minded women from other states.”

“Abortion is not health care,” another clinic opponent calling herself Rebecca P. said. “Health care does not involve killing someone, stopping a heartbeat.”

Planned Parenthood argues in its lawsuit that it is the sole permit applicant affected by the city’s moratorium and that the city imposed the moratorium because it can’t legally deny just the clinic’s permit nor can it ban abortion providers, “a plainly unconstitutional act.”

“But the City may not do indirectly what it cannot do directly,” the lawsuit states.

If the court allows the moratorium to stand, it would signal other local governments “to use their police powers to prohibit access to reproductive healthcare,” Planned Parenthood argues.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing in San Bernardino Superior Court on June 4, with an additional hearing slated for July.


This story was originally published by CalMatters and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.