With the City Council mulling changes to decades-old zoning ordinances, the commercial landscape of Hanford could be in for some changes that may alter the flavor of the city’s unique downtown business district.
At an evening town hall meeting February 24 at the Civic Auditorium, preserving the charms of Hanford’s downtown business district while keeping business booming throughout the city were the goals in mind. Possible zoning ordinance changes were the hot topic as business people and citizens presented their views on what changes they would like to see and the possible consequences.
“This all started when the Costco folks asked for a variance,” said City Manager Darrel Pyle.
In September, representatives of the retailer asked the city to allow an optometrist to practice at its planned location on East Lacey Boulevard, a move that would have required a conditional use permit, as current zoning ordinances do not allow medical practices outside the city’s Downtown Commercial Zone. The request was denied, but others followed, prompting a new discussion on the current laws.
“There were other requests from businesses to develop outside the downtown area,” Pyle told the assembly.
Specifically at issue is the restriction of certain kinds of businesses to the downtown area. As it stands, medical offices, theaters, furniture stores, banks and hotels may only operate downtown. The restrictions were put in place in the mid-1990s in an effort to draw additional commercial traffic to the city center, said Michael Semas, a Hanford CPA who served on the committee 25 years ago that recommended the zoning laws now in place.
“How can we drive traffic — vehicles and foot — into downtown?” Semas said the committee asked itself. “Most of it was rather successful. I know it looks petty.”
Any perceived pettiness may stem from the intricate nature of the current zoning laws. As it stands, medical offices larger than 6,000 square feet require a conditional use permit to do business downtown, while furniture stores may only do business downtown or in Community Commercial Zones, except department stores, which can only give over 2,500 square feet of their space to furniture sales no matter where they are located. Movie theaters are restricted to downtown, except for the Cinemark 8 on Lacey Boulevard, which operates there with special permission, and hotel construction is only allowed downtown, unless developers are given special permission to build elsewhere. Full-service banks may only operate downtown, with variances allowed depending on whether space is available for them in that zone.
History and Controversy
“The zone codes have worked for all these years,” said Bob Ramos, a member of a civil committee currently tasked with revising Hanford’s General Plan. The current laws, he said, remade the city’s downtown, causing those seeking to do business in Hanford to invest there and rebuild several historic landmark buildings. “Those are pillars of the downtown area.”
The General Plan Committee, Ramos said, is still reviewing the data it has collected and needs more time to formulate a useful set of recommendations for the City Council before it acts.
“We’re not done with the job yet,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talking to do so we can bring you better information.”
Ramos said he believes the city should allow larger medical offices downtown, that the Cinemark 8 should be allowed a permanent permit to operate and that banks should be allowed to open satellite branches and ATM locations, provided they have an “anchor” location downtown.
He also questioned why the zoning issue has been repeatedly revisited by the council, asking if influence from city staff living outside Hanford and business interests not native to the area were driving the move for zoning changes.
“We’ve got these people coming from Visalia wanting to change our downtown,” Ramos said.
Changes Coming Quickly
Ramos was not alone in saying the changes were coming too quickly or in suspecting they would not be in the best interest of Hanford’s citizens. Glenda Dwyer, a member of the city’s Citizens Advisory Committee, said the process was being unnecessarily rushed.
“I’m pretty upset about this coming to the Council so fast,” she said, denying that the Committee had given their endorsement to any possible changes. “I don’t believe it was and I don’t believe the members believe it was.”
Dwyer said the issue should have been put to rest with the Costco decision in September.
“I thought it was decided when Costco came in,” she said. “I guess someone wants those changes.”
Dwyer, however, agreed minor alterations to the zoning laws are needed, yet felt there was a lack of understanding of the current requirements.
“We might need to tweak the zones, but we need to take it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “I don’t think people understand why the zones are there.”
Shelly Talbert, a member of the Advisory Committee and the head of Main Street Hanford, also said proposing zone changes was premature. The Committee’s questions, she said, had not been answered to its satisfaction.
“These proposals were kind of rushed through,” she said.
Dave Jones, former head of the now defunct Hanford Visitors Agency, said the downtown should be rejuvenated not by changing the zoning, but by maintaining its charm and encouraging businesses to occupy the 40 empty storefronts currently standing vacant.
“The sizzle is downtown,” he said. “It’s an organizational issue.”
Jones said city-sponsored organizations currently tasked with fostering business downtown were taking the wrong approach. Instead of hosting one-time events designed to bring visitors, more emphasis should be placed on building investment in downtown infrastructure, as well as making sure the city’s plans are in the best interest of current business operators. He cited a 15% occupancy rate for hotels as evidence new ones were not needed.
“Did anyone ask the hotel owners if we need another hotel?” Jones asked the Council. “It’s not just about the events.”
Hotel employee Sonya Cordero said she felt the call for new hotels was due to the increase in business experienced each year when attendance at the World Ag Expo causes hotels throughout the South Valley to sell out. Because of low occupancy the rest of the year, such a move could have the reverse effect.
“It would just kill the ones struggling to survive,” she said. “There needs to be more planning when it comes to a hotel. We’re not a tourist attraction.”
Council to Discuss Change
Now that the citizenry has had its say, the next move will be up to the Council. Planned discussion for future Council meetings will include:
- Amending the Municipal Code to allow secondary uses within a business, such as allowing Costco to perform eye exams.
- Allowing medical offices larger than 6,000 square feet downtown.
- Allowing furniture store and theater operation outside downtown.
- Revising the city’s definition of a hotel to allow food service.
- Amending the General Plan and Municipal Code to allow banks a second branch, provided they already operate one downtown.