A group of south Visalia citizens is ready to fight to the bitter end to keep a 17,000-square-foot, 24-hour gas station and car wash out of their neighborhood.
When she attended a Planning Commission meeting last month, Visalia resident Robin Hernandez was surprised to find out the city was just one vote away from recommending Chandi Group, a Coachella Valley-based development company, start construction of a combination 20-hose gas station, car wash and drive-through restaurant with round-the-clock hours at the northeast corner of Caldwell Avenue and West Street, less than a quarter mile from her home.
“I was shocked,” Hernandez said. “It’s a David and Goliath story for sure.”
She and her husband were at the meeting to hear discussion of another topic before the Commission when she noticed a public hearing on the construction of an Arco station in her neighborhood was also on the night’s agenda.
“I’m saying to my husband, ‘This is terrible!’ I stood up and said, ‘Where are my neighbors? Why weren’t we told about this?’,” Hernandez said. “I said, ‘I’m going to knock on doors and tell people.’ I don’t like this sneaky stuff.”
City Project Planner Paul Bernal said Hernandez wasn’t notified of the hearing because she and her husband live outside the 300-foot radius within which the city must notify residents of a pending public hearing. Hernandez, he said, wasn’t the only one upset they had no notice of the hearing.
“I’ve talked to numerous people,” Bernal said. “When this goes back into public hearing, and we don’t have a date because it hasn’t been resubmitted, but they’ll all be noticed.”
Bernal said anyone who wishes to be notified when the public hearing date of continuation is set may contact him at 713-4364.
‘Madder, More Determined’
True to her word, Hernandez has begun rallying the neighborhood to fight against this perceived intrusion. So far, she has more than a dozen people attending regular weekly meetings at her home, and the group has already gathered hundreds of signatures opposing the plan. When she discovered no one knew about the impending construction, it made her more ready to fight.
“I couldn’t find one person who knew about that Arco station, and that made me even madder and more determined,” she said. “I don’t know what one old lady can do, but I’m going to do what I can.”
What the group intends is to fight what they believe to be a plan that violates many of the city’s construction, pollution, noise and other ordinances. The past behavior of the Chandi Group may give them hope their pleas will not fall on deaf ears.
Last April, Chandi abandoned plans to construct a similar complex in La Quinta when faced with overwhelming opposition by residents there, according to reporting by the Desert Sun.
Chandi Faced Protests
Those opposed to Chandi’s plans for a third Visalia Arco AM/PM mini-mart hope Chandi Group is still gun-shy. The company and its owner faced ongoing protests last year, even after changing the La Quinta plans, and it may want to avoid similar trouble here.
According to the Desert Sun, Chandi Group became the focus of anti-Trump protesters after it was learned company CEO Nacchattar Chandi donated $500,000 to a PAC supporting candidates including President Donald Trump.
The company faced additional backlash when it became public knowledge $41,000 had been donated to two Coachella City Council candidates by Chandi and a PAC he funds.
Eventually, Susana Chandi, the company’s COO and wife of Nacchattar Chandi, threatened to end a $10.1 million development if the city did not act to end the protests, the Desert Sun reported, depriving the city of the $160,000 in annual sales tax income it would generate.
Chandi Group did not respond to a request for an interview.
Arco Doesn’t Fit
Hernandez says she isn’t opposed to another gas station in town, but building it at Caldwell and West doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood.
“I want it built in accordance with the neighborhood and the other 45 businesses that are already there,” she said.
None of the other businesses in the two-block area between Santa Fe Street and West are open around the clock, except the new fast-food drive-through that sprung up at the southwest corner of Caldwell and Court Street.
The restaurant’s new neighbors were caught flatfooted when its construction was carried out in just under a month.
“The Jack in the Box was a real surprise,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez believes the city should do more to make citizens aware of upcoming construction plans. It was CalWater’s diligence in notifying neighbors of its construction plans that drew her to the Planning Commission meeting originally.
“The Water Company notified us,” she said. “The city could have.”
Plans Versus Reality
Hernandez and those who are joining the fight say the plans Arco submitted and which Bernal recommended for approval are filled with errors and inconsistencies.
As presented, the construction plan would violate noise, lighting, and pollution codes, they say. The plans also make statements the group says are false, including reporting high noise levels that do not reflect actual background noise. Plans submitted by Chandi claim 10 airliners fly over the intersection each hour.
“That was a typo on their part,” Bernal said. “It really references the car noise.”
The plan also asserts West Street has the same carrying capacity as Caldwell Avenue.
“West Street (south of Caldwell) is a defined collector,” Bernal said. “I wouldn’t say it has the same capacity.”
West Street north of Caldwell certainly doesn’t. That stretch of road, which ends at Mt. View Elementary School, is just two lanes, one of which is partially blocked by an oak tree planter near the intersection with Whitendale Avenue.
The road has already seen increased traffic when West was extended south of Caldwell.
“Our report analyzed the project itself, the zoning and the uses,” Bernal said. “I think we addressed the 24-hour issue briefly. They were so far from that discussion, because of the discussion of the noise.”
When it was originally constructed, the Prince Market, a gas station and convenience store at the northeast corner of West and Caldwell, wished to build a car wash. The city, however, denied the request, which it now seems ready to approve across the street. Those working against the Arco plan feel this is an inconsistency that needs to be explained.
“That is a different zoning regulation,” Bernal said. “Streets do act as physical barriers. In this instance, the (Arco) project site is a mixed-use designation.”
Residents who must live with the new Arco if it is constructed do not believe Caldwell Avenue will provide enough of a barrier to prevent a change in the nature of their neighborhood. Just a few blocks away from the proposed site, at the corner of Court Street and Walnut Avenue where 7-11 and Walgreen’s Pharmacy are open 24 hours a day, transients gather regularly throughout the night. A 24-hour business with open bathrooms, cigarettes, alcohol and cheap, ready food will draw similar gatherings, residents fear.
The city, Bernal said, is aware it has a problem, and it’s not just limited to a few neighborhoods.
“I think that citywide that’s kind of been an issue,” he said. “There have been a lot of council work sessions on the homeless and transients.”
What Are They Thinking?
Meanwhile, Hernandez is still trying to figure out why the city would allow the project to go forward.
“I wanted to find out what they’re thinking,” she said. “I’m just trying to learn on the fly here.”
The group, she said, wants to stick to substance, but finds itself frustrated by red-tape-filled procedure.
“We don’t want to be emotional,” she said. “We don’t want to be all over the place.”
Yet uncertainty about when the public hearing on Arco will continue is making the group nervous and suspicious, both of the developers and of City Hall.
“We don’t know when this is coming up on the agenda,” Hernandez said. “That’s another thing that makes it hard.”
Anyone wishing to contact Hernandez and her group may contact them at [email protected]