Commission Updates City Council

The Visalia City Council and the Visalia Planning Commission held a joint meeting on February 3 at the Convention Center to update the city council members about major planning issues. Josh McDonnell, city planner, presented an update on the increase in building permits, progress on the general plan and the city’s sign ordinance that, after four years of being discussed and dissected, has yet to be completed. McDonnell also explained the one piece of the general plan that is a state mandate, the Housing Element.

General Plan

On October 14, 2014, the Visalia City Council adopted the general plan, which will manage the city’s growth through at least 2030, and likely beyond. The plan builds on the 1991 General Plan, emphasizing growth in all four of the City’s quadrants. It also establishes Downtown Visalia as the central core of the city and Mooney Boulevard as the regional retail hub of Tulare and Kings Counties.

Adopting a general plan is just one step in a multi-year process. Several parts of the document are designed to be implemented over the coming decade. The General Plan devotes chapter  9 to describing items to be implemented in coming years, and can be accessed at the following website, http://www.visaliageneralplanupdate.com

The immediate priority is revising the Zoning Ordinance and the Subdivision Ordinance to establish consistency with the General Plan.  These code changes are critical in implementing the new plan, so staff is working diligently to get this process underway.

The updated General Plan includes new land use designations and associated densities that will require revisions to their accompanying zoning designations, design districts, and development standards. Given the technical nature of the Zoning Ordinance, staff’s recommendation will be to rely on the Planning Commission to serve as the Technical Advisory Committee for reviewing and commenting on proposed zoning and subdivision changes.

After the city council passed the General Plan, a business associated with real estate development challenged the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), alleging that the document insufficiently analyzes the potential impacts that the city’s blueprint may have on the environment. A settlement meeting was held in January of this year and the city is waiting for materials from the petitioner regarding a potential settlement proposal.

The name of the litigant is Visalia Retail, LP, a real estate affiliated company out of Fresno founded by developers Michael and Jon Thomason. The two developers successfully requested zone changes in Fresno’s general plan in 2008 and filed suit in Redding in 2010 over paying developer fees, a case in which they lost.

It is not known whether a settlement can be reached. If a mutually agreeable settlement is not identified, the case will continue to hearing within the next four to eight months.

The decision following the hearing may or may not provide a final outcome, as there may be further work required or there may also be appeals of the decision. In the meantime, the existence of the litigation is not preventing implementation of the General Plan. The city, until ordered otherwise, will continue to implement the policies of the updated General Plan.

The General Plan splits Visalia’s growth into three tiers. Tier I is projected to taken 7 years of growth before the city reaches Tier II. As Visalia continues to develop within Tier I, decision makers will be asked to provide direction on implementing a variety of other General Plan-adopted policies and programs. Some examples of upcoming policy efforts include:

Create a program that addresses mitigation of prime farmland conversion in Tiers IIand III (Land Use Policy LU-P-34)

Adopt specific development standards for scenic entryways and roadway corridors along the Highway 198 Corridor (Land Use Policy LU-P-37)

Create a voluntary Affordable Housing Overlay zone that provides incentives for the development of affordable housing (Land Use Policy LU-P-58)

An annual General Plan status report is scheduled to be prepared and circulated by city staff each April. A copy of the status report can be found under April’s agenda on the City of Visalia website.

Building permits

Good news was the order of the day concerning building permits. In total, the city issued 4,147 permits in 2014 with a total estimated valuation of $181,337,948. This represents a 21% increase in the number of permits issued and a 2% increase in valuation compared to 2013.

Building permits issued in Visalia are an accurate indicator of the economic health of the city. About ten years ago, during the economic boom, from approximately 2005-2007, Visalia witnessed the highest permit numbers and valuations in the city’s history. Total permits reached as high as 5,677 and a valuation of $490,674,445 in 2006. However, starting in 2008 and until 2011, Visalia witnessed a substantial decline to a low of 3,017 in permits issued until 2012. The drop in development activity effected Visalia by resulting, “in a significant loss of both private and public sector jobs in that economic category.  The last couple years of increasing development activity has resulted in the return of some of these jobs,” said McDonnell. In 2014, the city’s permit numbers compared to 2013 were steady and grew along with valuation.

McDonnell added that, “The city is moving back to pre-bubble numbers, but isn’t quite there yet.  We should be back up in a couple years.  With that said, the city is developing at a nice, steady, sustainable pace right now so we’re pretty satisfied with the last couple years of recovery.”

Housing Element Update

The Housing Element is one of seven required sections of a General Plan.  State law requires that each jurisdiction in California prepare and periodically update its Housing Element. The purpose of the Housing Element is to ensure that local governments have an adequate supply of affordable housing for its low income residents.  The Housing Element is the only component of a jurisdiction’s General Plan that is required to be reviewed and certified by the State.

The city’s Housing Element, adopted in 2010, covered a 7 1/2-year period from January 2007 to July 2014. The city is required to adopt a new Housing Element prior to December 31, 2015. The upcoming Housing Element will cover the period from December 31, 2015, to December 31, 2023, an 8-year period.

The state decides how much land needs to be allocated to accommodate Visalia’s low income residents. This indicator is referred to as the city’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA). The RHNA is the minimum statewide projection of additional housing units that the State determines will be needed to accommodate projected household growth of all income levels by the end of a given Housing Element cycle.

Visalia received an estimate of 10,021 units it will need to accommodate the city’s low income residents. Visalia now needs to prove that it has sufficient land to accommodate the 10,021 units it was allocated. But the city is not required to actually develop the units that it was allocated during the planning period–it is simply required to prove it has sufficient land designated to comply with the RHNA allocation.

The RHNA number illuminated two changing trends in Visalia since the last set of requirements was issued.  First, the total number of housing units forecasted for the 8-year period (2014-2023) has been reduced by over 28%, due to a generally downward trend in population projections in the last couple of years. Second, the number of new units targeted for affordable income families is increased by 391 units (9%), since 2007

Much of the content of the old Housing Element can be re-used for the new update. A draft of the Housing Element should be ready for the planning commission to review by October and for the city council’s approval by November or December. The Housing Element plan is due to the state by December 15th.

Sign Ordinance

Locals don’t realize that a sign ordinance exists or pay attention to signs until banners, sandwich boards, billboards and the like start multiplying and make the city look tacky. When that happens, the council members start getting calls. Visalians want to know why their town suddenly looks trashy and cluttered, to which the council member replies, “Because Visalia still has to update its sign ordinance and many of the existing rules are unenforceable.”

The problem came to a head in the economic boom of the real estate industry in 2007, when many vacant lots would be cluttered with signs of varying quality and size every Sunday. Several real estate agents might forget to pick up their sign for months, and in the old days, when it used to rain, the signs would start looking like garbage strewn on empty lots. Amy Shuklian, elected right at the end of the boom, used to go around on Sundays and throw the most offensive signs into her car and dump them at Visalia’s corporation yard. Voters liked her initiative and commitment to cleaning up Visalia and it helped her win her seat on city council.

A lot has changed since those heady days of 2007–such as the amount of rain and number of real estate signs scattered throughout the city. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the sign ordinance.

At last year’s city council retreat conducted at the Rawhide, Steve Nelsen complained that this would be the third straight retreat that the city council was talking about the sign ordinance. It was decided that a professional needed to be hired to succeed in writing a sign ordinance. An argument ensued about why the city had to spend the money on a consultant to rewrite the city’s sign ordinance. Shuklian wanted to know why city staff couldn’t just tweek the existing onr. McDonnell replied that, just for the fact the council had been arguing over the issue for years, is reason enough to indicate that we need the help of a professional. Visalia City Manager Mike Olmos pointed out the divergent opinions just in the room.  The sign ordinance will need to be different in different parts of the city–downtown, Mooney, Highway 198. It was going to be controversial and would get done faster with a consultant. Steve Nelsen’s final comment was “Do we want to look like Blackstone Avenue in Fresno or do we want to look like Visalia?” He supported putting an end to the sign ordinance debate and hiring a consultant.

In March, 2014, the city council authorized a contract with Dyett & Bhatia to prepare the update. An eight-member Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was assembled to advise on the consultant’s draft ordinance update and provide recommendations to the document. The nine members of the TAC consist of Council members and Planning Commissioners. Because the issue was  finally in the hands of a consultant, the city council did not debate the issue for the first time in three years at their 2015 retreat at Cafe 210.

Surprise, surprise–the TAC was unable to come to a consensus about the consultant’s sign ordinance update, but the majority agreed on a final draft this January. The draft is being reviewed by the planning commission, which will make its recommendation to the city council. It is projected that the planning commission will have its recommendation ready in March and will be presenting at the April city council meeting.

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