Visalia Approves New General Plan

After four years of hard work, the Visalia City Council adopted their General Plan. After a three-and-a-half hour final meeting on October 14, the vote was 5-0 to adopt the Climate Action Plan, the General Plan Update and the associated Environmental Impact Report.

“This truly is the community’s plan–the community was engaged throughout the process, from inception to adoption,” said Mayor Steve Nelsen. “The time and commitment, attention to detail, public discussion and debate has brought us to this moment, and this plan will now guide the city’s growth for the next 20 years.”

This update replaces the existing General Plan which was adopted in 1991. Minor updates have been made to the plan over the years, but no comprehensive update has been done until now.

The plan consists of nine chapters, which cover the following topics: land use; circulation; open space; conservation; components related to noise, safety, air quality and greenhouse gases; as well as elements that address local concerns such as historic preservation and parks, schools, community facilities and utilities. The Climate Action Plan provides a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It includes objectives and policies from the proposed General Plan that addresses long-term emissions reduction efforts.

The update process was led by the General Plan Update Review Committee (GPURC) comprised of 25 members representing all facets of the community. Over 33 GPURC meetings involved sharing information and ideas that were developed through a variety of methods used to ensure the community’s full participation, including stakeholder interviews, community workshops, and four “Town Hall” style meetings, one in each quadrant of the city.

Four-and-a-half years seems like a long time to update a document, but not when you consider what happened in Tulare. According to the Visalia Times-Delta, “The general plan process started in 2006 and was initially approved in 2008. However, a successful California Environmental Quality Act challenge derailed the process. City officials then addressed the court orders.”
Tulare approved their general plan within days of Visalia approving theirs but it took eight years to finalize. Tulare ended up being forced to adopt a 1/1 acre ratio Agricultural Mitigation Plan (AMP) that goes into effect immediately. Both Visalia and Tulare’s general plans create a buffer between the two cities. Tulare’s General Plan runs through 2035 while Visalia’s goes to 2030.

Nelsen took Tulare’s lesson to heart. The town was sued because they had no mechanism to mitigate for the loss of agriculture land and now have no options. As a result, they are stuck with a plan that requires developers to pay extra fees starting this month. On the other hand, Visalia voted 3-2 for an ag mitigation plan that doesn’t go into effect for 8-10 years. During those years, if ag mitigation plans prove to be a disaster, the courts will no longer mandate cities to implement them. That means in eight years the city council can either change or eliminate their AMP.

“Got to have options,” said Nelsen.

Visalia’s AMP was a creative compromise that had something in it to please almost anyone. Visalia’s General Plan consists of three growth tiers. The ag mitigation plan does not affect the land inside tier I, but goes into effect when Visalia and enters growth tier II and III. According to Josh McDonnell, city planner, the trigger to open up tier one will happen when permits for 5,850 residential units are issued. The time period for permit issuance began on April 1, 2010. Around 1,500 units have been permitted to date. Thus, about 4,500 units need to be permitted before Visalia grows to Tier II.

So for the next ten years, developers in Visalia will not be paying mitigation fees, and, as Council Member Greg Collins pointed out, it will encourage in-fill development. In addition, there is not a large amount of viable agriculture land in growth tier I to start with.

Vice Mayor Warren Gubler voted against the AMP. He believes that Visalia is already one of the cities in the state most interested in smart growth. He said that the AMP is untested and unnecessary and the farm bureau and farmers were not for it.

“I listened to them,” he said. When asked about the possibility of the city being sued, “I’m an attorney. People say that all the time and 99% of the time it doesn’t happen. You can’t govern like that. You have to govern by what is best for the city.” Nelsen’s strategy to avoid being sued, then removing the mitigation plan in a few years if it proves ineffective, is “reverse thinking,” said Gubler. “Once it’s in it’s in, and will be very hard to reverse.”

Concerning the other incorporated cities in Tulare County, Dinuba and Exeter each have a 10-year-old general plan, and Porterville has one that is five years old. The county also by law has to have a growth plan and the Tulare County Board of Supervisors adopted theirs in 2012. It is good until 2030.

For information on Visalia’s General Plan Update, go to www.visaliageneralplanupdate.com.

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