Visalia Continues Process to Adopt General Plan Update

A continuance of the September 8 special Visalia City Council meeting on the General Plan took place during the council’s regular meeting on October 6. Due to an emergency, Council Member Bob Link was unable to attend. Any decision on the General Plan was delayed until the following week, when Link would be available. According to Josh McDonald, Visalia city planner, the entire council should be in attendance during such an important vote. A vote like this only happens around every 20 years and Link is the chairman of the council’s General Plan Update Committee (GPURG).

Despite Link’s absence, the public hearing part of the General Plan adoption process did continue as expected. It’s doubtful that few, if any, of the 12 items listed on the agenda to consider before adoption would have been voted on even if Link were present. After a 90-minute public hearing, the council and attendees were ready to call it a night. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Steve Nelsen formally closed the public hearing portion of the General Plan Update. No public comment will be heard during the next special meeting on October 13.

Because this was a public hearing, and those who approached the lectern were either experts in their field or an integral part of the GPU process, the three-minute time limit was not enforced. A few of the 13 speakers talked about their own neighborhoods or clients, but the majority of the discussion revolved around the pros and cons of adopting an Ag Mitigation Program (AMP). Both sides made compelling arguments.

Brent Taylor, a local realtor and member of the Visalia Planning Commission, was concerned about developers having to pay increased fees. Developer fees would be a major funding source in buying farmland to put into a conservancy. He pointed out that one of the most attractive elements of Visalia was the affordable housing. But increasing the developer fees would translate into higher housing costs for the consumer. He said that the General Plan Update already has several farmland protections built in it, such as very stringent growth tiers and higher density requirements of residential developments. Taylor explained that this new “tax” would siphon hundreds of millions of dollars out of the locals’ pockets.

Brad Maaske, also a Visalia realtor, said that the GPU, for reasons explained by Taylor, is a self-mitigating plan. Even so, he said that the Sequoia Riverlands Trust (SRT) wants a gift, acre for acre, to put into an agriculture conservative easement.

“Everyone wants a buffer between Visalia and Tulare but handing the property over to a third party and losing control was not the way to do it,” said Maaske. “There are lawsuits all over the United States involving AMPs.” He was concerned that once farmland was put into a conservancy that farmers could not rent rooms out of their houses, change their crops or operate a fruit stand to sell their produce.

Brian Blain, a member of GPURG and representing the Tulare County Farm Bureau (TCFB), had the most measured comments. Though the TCFB is against Visalia adopting their own AMP, he dispelled a few rumors floating around about the mitigation program. Participation is completely voluntary. No one has to put their property into an ag conservation trust. Nor is the farmer told that they cannot rent a room, change crops or build a fruit stand. What is mandatory are the developer mitigation fees. Any landowner who wants to develop their land will have to pay these fees.

Another salient point is that, once a piece of farmland is put into a conservation trust, it is in the trust for perpetuity. Then the question becomes, what happens when that piece of land permanently loses its water? What happens if neighboring residents ban farming because of pesticide drift or seasonal dust clouds that happen during harvest or planting? What Visalia will end up with is a bunch of weed-infested dust bowls that can’t be developed. The TCFB is not against agricultural conservation easements and believes a countywide program could be debated.

Blain also brought up a major point discussed at the last General Plan meeting, supported by Nelsen, that an isolated Visalia mitigation plan could backfire. Tulare and Porterville could say, “Hey, come over here and develop where it’s cheaper.”
Larry Peltzer, a fourth-generation farmer, explained that he was against the mitigation program because of the drought and also because now farmers’ groundwater is going to be regulated.

Sam Sciacca, a realtor and farmer, was also against mandatory developer fees. He said that when farmers sell their farmland they self-mitigate. Through the 1031 exchanges, farmers just buy another piece of farmland.

In the final analysis, those opposed to the AMP were urging the city council to adopt the GPU as proposed.

Interspersed with arguments against the AMP were speakers who made the case to embrace the farmland mitigation program. Daniel O’Connell, former director of SRT, said he brought his own propaganda because there has been a lot of propaganda going around. He displayed a 1915 map of Los Angeles County, not really visible to the audience, which illustrated how much farmland used to exist in the city. This, of course, makes sense because the southland wasn’t very populated at the time.

O’Connell said that L.A. County was the number one ag producing county in California from 1915 to 1949, before that distinction was taken over by Fresno County. Now Tulare County has surpassed Fresno as the number one ag producer, probably, he said, because L.A. County paved over so much of their farmland. Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County agricultural commissioner/sealer, actually said during her report to the Tulare County Board of Supervisors this summer that Fresno lost its number one spot because Westlands Water District had to fallow hundreds of acres because of the drought.

O’Connell mentioned that there are two other cities in California that have successful ag mitigation programs. Davis is one of them and it does not have a one-to-one ratio, but a five-to-one mitigation program. The other town was in Stanislaus County.

He explained that there are lots of ag easements all over the country. “This is nothing new, except in Tulare County.” He ended his presentation saying that, “those who are fighting most against an AMP are the ones with the most economic gain to be had. But at whose benefit?”

Sopac Mulholland, executive director of SRT, pointed out the fact that all general plans tell landowners what to do. The plan tells the landowners if they can develop, and what they can build on their property, and how big the homes or commercial buildings can be. “It’s called planning,” she said.

“I have been a member of the Farm Bureau for 50 years and not all farmers feel the same as Brian Blain. We help ranchers ranch and farmers farm.” She explained that ag mitigation is just another tool to use to help keep the county number one in farming. Mulholland also pointed out that this was not a tax. This is a fee just like an impact fee or a fee to pay for schools. This makes it a level playing field because all developers pay a flat fee.

Scott Spear, former board member of SRT, said that by 2030 there will be 50 million people in California and the population will gobble up the area’s agriculture land. “Does Visalia have the guts to preserve this industry?” he asked.

Richard Harriman, a lawyer from Chico who has served on their land conservation trust board, encouraged the city to adopt a faster timeline for acquisition of the Scenic Corridor. He commended Council Member Greg Collins for being a trailblazer in the field of responsible land-use issues. Harriman’s recommendation was to send the GPU back to staff so they could obtain sufficient evidence that an ag mitigation program is not financially feasible before the council considers rejecting it.

While Blain was making his statement earlier in the evening, Collins asked him if the TCFB had any solutions to the loss of farmland. Blain reiterated that everyone wants a buffer between Tulare and Visalia but the TCFB does not have the solution. Collins replied that we could learn from history, “This has all been played out before.” To that, Blain said that when people use farms to block growth the farm industry takes offense. We are farmers not developers.

Collins expressed later that week that there obviously are two schools of thought on the Ag Mitigation Program, but that he was certain the council would be able to come up with an acceptable compromise. Out of the 12 General Plan items that need to be addressed, the city council could pass the Environmental Impact Report and the Climate Action Plan at their next meeting. If a modified version of the AMP were adopted by the council, it would be a part of the city’s EIR.

The general plan update was adopted on Oct. 16. For more information, click here.

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