Visalia City Council held a special meeting Monday, September 8, to review the 2030 General Plan. The council members were generally happy with the plan that was four years in the making. Mayor Steve Nelsen said that it was “a good document leaning towards excellent.” A group called the General Plan Update Review Committee, made up of planning commission members and other Visalia residents, went word-for-word through the 1991 General Plan and revised it to meet the needs of Visalia until 2030 and beyond.
During the discussion, four major concerns surfaced: Visalia’s entrance on the west side, keeping an acceptable buffer between Visalia and Tulare, adopting an agriculture mitigation program, and what triggers the city should use when deciding to proceed to the second and third growth ring.
Council Member Amy Shuklian started off the conversation with her concern about Visalia growing into Tulare like what happened to Fresno and Clovis. No discernable border exists between our neighbors to the south. Josh McDonald, Visalia city planner, said that, coincidently, Tulare will be having its General Plan Update meeting September 16, and as far as he knows, their northern boundary is Avenue 264. Visalia’s proposed southern boundary will be the same it has been for 40 years at Avenue 272, which creates a mile or so of intermittent agriculture land in between the two towns.
Council Member Greg Collins voiced his concerns about Visalia’s entrance and the zoning designation of service commercial to 120 acres north of Highway 198. McDonald said that it was a logical place to put such businesses because the area is next to the Industrial Park. Little distinction exists between light industrial and service commercial. Examples of service commercial businesses are auto repair shops, air conditioning companies, and smog services. The intent of the zoning is to have all the commercial service industries currently on East Main Street move to West Visalia, so the downtown area can continue its gentrification. Those service types of businesses could relocate to less valuable real estate by the industrial park, and restaurants and professional offices could take their place on Main Street.
Collins, along with most of the other council members, were concerned about visitors’ first impression of Visalia as they drove into town on Highway 198 coming from Highway 99. On the right side, one would see the airport and on the left side auto shops and other related industries. Nelsen said he would prefer to see hotels, restaurants and educational institutions. Two people from the public spoke in favor of the service commercial zoning. Bill Whitlatch, a local real estate business owner, was advocating that his property on East Goshen remains zoned service commercial. Vincent Salinas, a former member of the planning commission who worked on writing the new General Plan, said the area around the Industrial Park was appropriate for service commercial and this part of the plan was well thought out by GPURG. He said that those types of businesses could actually look very nice with attractive landscaping and strict building codes.
Another problem exacerbating the aesthetics of Visalia’s entrance is that the 200-foot setback doesn’t go further west than Plaza Avenue, right where the service commercial zoning begins. Potentially, those light industrial businesses could be built right up against Highway 198. Speaking to Nelsen after the meeting, he did not seem very concerned about the service commercial zone because he felt that the area would be updated.
It wouldn’t be a meeting about the General Plan if Collins didn’t mention the Scenic Corridor. The struggle with the Scenic Corridor has always been the conflict between telling landowners what to do with their property and preserving the scenic drive coming into Visalia. Another struggle has been between those who see a lot of shrubs, weeds and junky construction when entering Visalia and those who see majestic oaks and fields of lush agriculture. McDonald pointed out that the Scenic Corridor is just speculative discussions and that the city needs to seriously consider buying the property. An Agriculture Mitigation Program (AMP) would make that feasible.
An AMP pays the landowners fair market value for their property and then converts it to an agricultural conservation trust so the land could never be developed. Collins also brought up the fact that, even if the city purchased the land though the AMP, they would need the funds to maintain it. The AMP could also be used when the council members have a desire to rezone prime ag land to residential or industrial. To assuage their conscience, they can then buy a piece of prime farm land somewhere else in Visalia’s sphere of influence and put it into an agriculture conservatorship to never be developed.
Several speakers from the public came with prepared comments that enthusiastically endorsed the Agriculture Mitigation Program. A speaker who represented the Tulare County Citizens for Responsible Growth (TCCRG) pointed out that the land between Tulare and Visalia is under the auspices of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. Right now, their General Plan also keeps a mile to a mile-and-a-half zoned as agriculture between the two cities, but, he said, we do not have conservation-minded supervisors. With a few amendments, the gap between the two cities could disappear. He had seen it happen in San Jose and said it wouldn’t be a stretch to see it happening here.
Juan Lopez of Visalia pointed out that since the adoption of the 2020 General Plan, 14,200 acres of prime agriculture land were converted to other uses. Brian Blain, who has been on GPURC since day one, and represents the farming interests, said that an AMP will not make the situation better and does not appear to work. He said the AMP would not decrease or increase the number of acres in agriculture. Indeed, only one town that the planning commission knows of, Chico, has an AMP, and that their research shows that it doesn’t work to keep land in agriculture.
Sopac Mulholland, from Sequoia River Land Trust (SRT), said that she was quite chagrined to hear people say that an AMP wouldn’t work because it has been a huge success throughout Tulare County. Sequoia Riverlands Trust is responsible for the creation of the Dry Creek Preserve and the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, among other things, and is considered a huge success. Scot Spear, past board chair of SRT, continued to urge the council to approve the AMP because the San Joaquin Valley is the most productive in the world. He encouraged the council to take a leading role in securing our food supply. “Take the brave step,” he implored.
Council Members Bob Link, Nelsen and Warren Gubler felt that Visalia can’t go it alone in terms of the AMP. Link felt that if the City of Tulare doesn’t adopt the plan then it won’t work for Visalia. Nelsen explained that other cities could lay out the red carpet while Visalia has added another layer of red tape to development through the AMP. He emphasized that adopting the AMP needs to be a coordinated effort with our sister cities or it won’t work. Gubler added that the famers have to also be on board and want to sell their land or want it put into agricultural conservation trust.
The fourth major concern was the growth triggers that would determine when Visalia annexed more land. The 1991 General Plan had two growth rings. A third growth ring, or tier as they are now referred to, was added for the 2030 General Plan. As the population grows, and housing units are built, Visalia will proceed to the next tier and annex more land into the city. The third tier was put into place so the 2030 general plan will still be relevant even several years after its due date. According to the Visalia Times-Delta, “5,800 permits for new homes would have to be issued by the city after the start of the General Plan Update – retroactively set to April 1, 2010 – before more land for new housing could be annexed.”
McDonald explained that the city planners prefer to use housing permits to gauge Visalia’s growth instead of population because they get precise, reliable permit numbers every year. Yearly population numbers are estimates, but it is predicted that when Visalia moves in to its second growth ring the population will be 148,000, and when the city is completely built out to the terms of the 2030 plan, the population will be 210,000.
Where the growth rings are placed greatly influences the market value of those parcels left outside of the ring, versus those inside the growth ring. Collins warned that if the city grows in a different direction, or at a different pace than projected, the city council can change the location of the growth rings. Landowners inside one of the growth rings should never assume their property will be annexed. Nelsen said that he is very pleased with the triggers the general plan has put into place. He said that the triggers encouraged infill while also being pro-growth.
The next General Plan Update Review meeting will be at the city council’s regular October 6 meeting. A continuation of the commercial service zoning will be discussed along with the zoning around the Visalia Municipal Airport. The Environmental Impact Report and the Climate Action Plan could possibly be adopted. Council members concluded the evening by congratulating GPURC on a job well done. Bob Link thanked the public for participating saying that this process confirms that, “the city belongs to the citizens.”