Visalia City Council Covers a Lot of Ground During Recent Meeting

On April 6 the Visalia City Council held a marathon city council meeting that included several public hearings, increased developer’s impact fees and rejected a change to a city ordinance. The meeting took place at the convention center in anticipation of larger-than-normal crowds for the public hearing about dividing the city into voting districts. That did not end up to be the case, as just as many of the more 100 attendees came to comment on a zoning change, a new hospitality contractor for the convention center, and an ordinance to allow city council members to challenge decisions by the planning commission.

Marriott Hotel to have new owners
City signs new contract with the Welcome Group 

The City of Visalia might have lost the Marriott Hotel if a new owner had not come forward. Leslie Caviglia, assistant city manager, asked the council to approve a shared use agreement between the Welcome Group, the new owner of the hotel, and the convention center. The former owner, Presidian, could not make the required upgrades needed to keep the Marriott name. The Welcome Group has committed to putting $5 million of renovations into the Marriott Hotel and setting aside a large number of rooms at a discount price to attract conventions. The City of Visalia also plans on putting several million into renovations to the convention center.

The shared use agreement would give the Welcome Group priority booking and catering in the Charter Oak Room of the convention center. Several members of the audience objected to the Welcome Group receiving priority booking and catering. Anil Chagan, owner of Comfort Suites on Acequia Ave., explained to the council that he books several events a year in the Charter Oak Room and that he will lose those groups if he does not have it available. He said that anyone with a large group should be able to book the Charter Oak Ballroom, not just the Welcome Group.  The convention center has other rooms available but they are all significantly smaller.

Sue Sa, of Sue Sa’s Creative Catering, said that she has been the main caterer for the convention center for 15 years. The new agreement would mean the Welcome Group would be the sole caterer. Sa explained that she normally caters 25 to 30 events a year at the convention center and that businesses want a choice as to who is going to cater their event. Chagan mentioned that many groups prefer the Vintage Press to cater their events and would not want to be forced to use the Welcome Group.

Both staff and the Welcome Group have tried to find ways to accommodate existing groups, such as those booked by Chagan, who have used the ballroom consistently over several years. The Welcome Group needs the peak convention times, and the food and beverage revenues to make their hotel and food service economically viable.

In regard to Sa’s concerns, Caviglia explained that many convention centers with a major brand host hotel have a sole source catering contract. Visalia was faced with the choice of a lesser brand hotel or accepting a company who had the capital to maintain the Marriott name. Those caliber of companies do not sign contracts unless they get an exclusive catering contract.

The Marriott is considered a premier brand, and there are only two others in the Valley, in Bakersfield and Sacramento. Caviglia said that many large conventions will not consider booking in cities that do not have a prestigious brand name hotel and that the competition for attracting large conventions is fierce. The many conventions in Visalia are one reason the city has such a vibrant downtown.

Each of the council members expressed their satisfaction with keeping the Marriott name. Council member Warren Gubler said that the Welcome Group compromised on several aspects of the contract in order to get a signed agreement. The Welcome Group also wanted to express its desire to work with the community of Visalia and be an integral part of it. The council members voted 5-0 to sign the agreement with the Welcome Group.

Change of Zoning on Mooney Blvd. South of Packwood Creek

Paloma Development requested a change of zoning designation from Agricultural to Planned Regional Retail Commercial on 28.6 acres of property located on the southwest corner of Mooney Boulevard and West Visalia Parkway. Right now the property is an empty field bordering the Westlake housing development and Target.

A large group of mainly elderly people who live in the housing development were in attendance to object to the parcel’s proposed zone change. Any new retail would border their houses on two sides. Westlake consists of 138 homes, 25 of which border the property in question. Their concerns were the traffic and noise that accompanies a large retail establishment. Their preference would be that the property remain agriculture or be zoned residential.

The current owners, who have owned the land for generations, are interested in selling the property and want it zoned in accordance with Visalia’s newly minted General Plan. The property has been designated as future retail since 1971. The Visalia Planning Commission voted 5-0 several weeks ago to rezone the property and recommended the council follow suit. There are currently no plans to develop the property and development may not happen for 20 or more years, according to the land owners. The council members felt confident that when the time came to develop the property that all the residents’ concerns would be addressed and the problems with living next door to retail mitigated. They voted 5-0 to rezone the property.

City Council Discusses Voting District Maps

Doug Johnson from the National Demographic Corporation (NDC) started the public hearing on separating Visalia into five voting districts. Johnson’s company was hired by Visalia as a result of a potential lawsuit if the city did not change from at-large elections to by-district elections. During public workshops in 2014, Johnson gave out kits on how to draw district maps and encouraged the public to do so. As a result, eight people submitted 11 district maps, in addition to three maps submitted by the NDC.

There were only three legal requirements that the public had to follow when creating their maps. Each district had to have approximately the same population, the map had to comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act, and race could not be the ‘predominate factor.’

The last two conditions are contradictory because, according to the Voting Rights Act, it is also illegal to dilute a minority population in order to prevent that group from being represented on the council. For Visalia that meant that a delicate compromise needed to be weaved between not separating the Hispanic population into different districts while not using race as the predominant factor. During Johnson’s presentation he revealed that, according to the 2010 census, Visalia’s population consists of 34 percent Hispanics and 57 percent Whites of voting age.

Optional criteria for drawing the maps included developing boundary lines around communities of interest such as the Oval or Mooney Blvd., using visible features such as highways or rivers, keeping the districts compact and contiguous, taking into consideration where the city will grow and avoid pairing incumbents if possible.

The final criteria of incumbent pairing caused the most contention last year and during the public hearing. This issue illustrated two problems with the process of choosing voting districts: First, should candidates be voting on their own district? When this process first started, four of the five council members were dead set against districts. Second, should avoiding incumbent pairing be a criteria?

None of the maps submitted by the public took this criterion into account. Each of the 11 maps had two or three current council members in one district. The three maps submitted by NDC did not have incumbents running against each other.

Johnson’s rationale for this was, according to concerned Visalian Rene Lapin, that, “The voters elected the current council members, and it should be the decision of the voters which council members are reelected to future terms. Where possible while respecting the other criteria, the administrative process of districting/redistricting should not tell voters you elected these two people in the past, but now you can only have one of them.”

Lapin’s response was that the population sector that voted for the city council in 2016, and subsequent years, will no longer effectively exist in the same configuration as it did in 2013 or 2011. Nor do the council members know whether the same voters of the past will vote for them in the future, or vote at all.

Lapin also pointed out that, “no one has even announced whether they plan to run again. So why should your residence locations receive any more favorable consideration on a map than those of new candidates we haven’t yet heard from, who might decide to run next term?”

“I say when next November comes it’s unrealistic for you to expect to keep your seats. It’s happened all over the state that ‘paired districts’ have been adopted, and certain officials have not been able to continue serving while living in their same locations,” said Lapin.

Different members of the public said, privately, that the NDC‘s three maps are “nothing more than Gerrymandering, plain and simple.”

The third concern was the question of race and districts. Minorities throughout the state do not necessarily win in their district. This just happened during the November election in Tulare, when a Caucasian beat out two Hispanics in a predominately Hispanic district.

“Likewise there are jurisdictions where the protected minority has not won in his or her new district,” Lapin said. “That’s a disappointment, of course, and we in Visalia likewise have no way of knowing whether the three candidates with Hispanic surnames who’ve lost local elections in recent years would have won had the new districts been in place. So there are no guarantees.”

Two members of the public who had submitted district maps stepped forward to give background on their submission.

Bill Balsley, who has lived in Visalia since 1974, submitted the most popular map among those involved. His map emphasized compactness and taking into account where Visalia was going to grow. He was of the opinion that Hispanics should not be packed into just one district, but may be two or more.

Vincent Salinas, a former member of the city Planning Commission, presented the second most popular map. He felt that “communities of interest” was the most important criteria and drew his map based on distinct neighborhoods.

When it was time for council members to comment on the proceedings, council member Greg Collins started it off by saying, “interesting.” He said that there were so many moving parts and subtleties to drawing these maps, but that he was comfortable with five of the maps. He preferred the ones that were compact and not gerrymandered. He said, he would be curious how his choices stood up to the Voting Rights Act.

The other council members were not as confident as Collins and needed more time. Gubler said he would have a hard time whittling the choices down to five and weighing all the pros and cons. Johnson said that because of the Voting Rights Act, three of the maps would probably have to be eliminated right away. Mayor Steve Nelsen wanted to hear all of the public comment before making up his mind and will be ready after the second public hearing to choose five maps.

The council elected for this meeting to only hear Johnson’s presentation and public comment, and forego any discussion of the presented maps. They reserved such discussion for a future work session and public hearing. Two more public hearings will be held, commencing with the April 20 and May 4 during the regular session of the City Council meetings, which begin at 7pm at City Hall. An informational presentation will be held during the work session at 4pm Monday, April 20 in City Hall, to allow the City Council and the public additional time to review and discuss the maps.

City Council Rejects Proposed Ordinance to Appeal Planning Commission Decisions

An ordinance was proposed in January of this year, to allow city council members to file an appeal of a planning commission decision of a subdivision tentative map. No filing fee would be required for a council member to appeal. In December 2006, the city council adopted essentially the same ordinance under consideration now. The ordinance was unpopular with the planning commission and the business community, and was repealed in June 2010.

Currently, city council members have the same standing as any other person in the community who might want to appeal a planning commission action. The city council member would also be precluded from participating as a council member when voting on the appeal. Further, the council member would be required to pay a filing fee of $474. Greg Collins proposed in January that the city council revisit this ordinance and the vote was 3-2 in favor of discussing it further.

On February 9, 2015, the planning commission conducted a public hearing on the ordinance amendment. One person, Mike Lane, representing the Building Industry Association, spoke in opposition to the proposed ordinance change. In addition, three individuals, Eric Shannon from CRS Farms, Matt Ainley from 4Creeks Engineering, and Matt Smith from Woodside Homes, submitted correspondence in opposition to the proposal. The Planning Commission closed the public hearing and voted unanimously against changing the ordinance.

Lane began the evening’s public comment period by saying that allowing the council to appeal planning commission decisions creates a dangerous potential for arbitrary council decisions. He said that this amendment would add time and expense to the process of new developments. He added that the planning commission should be the judicial branch in land use decisions, not the council.

Brett Taylor, a former member of the planning commission and a local realtor, reminded the council that the planning commission voted 5-0 against the amendment. He said that the new ordinance would slow down development and cost more. In the two other cities that have a similar ordinance, Porterville and Bakersfield, it is harder and more costly to get plans approved.

Gail Zurick of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce said that the chamber’s members were universally against amending the ordinance. The members feel that the current process is fair and upfront, and city council should not add any more layers to getting a development approved.

Collins reiterated that the final decision on developments rests with the city council and that the council has a right to weigh in and freely discuss what the General Plan says. The General Plan was loosely written and what a developer may think as a high-density or contiguous neighborhood, a council member may not. Collins said, he felt that developers do not want additional scrutiny on their projects. He said, they feel secure with the planning commission and that fundamentally the “developers don’t want the decisions to get to the council and I have a problem with that.”

Council member Bob Link said that the council very carefully picks the planning commission members for their qualifications and for their ability to make decisions that are consistent with how the city council feels.

Mayor Nelsen said that during the four years that the ordinance allowed council members to appeal decisions he felt that they didn’t have a good relationship with the planning commission. He didn’t agree with it then and he doesn’t agree with it now. Nelsen felt the ordinance goes against what Visalia is all about.

Gubler said that he had voted in January to discuss the ordinance and was sitting on the fence. But after talking to the community, the Visalia Economic Development Corporation, the Chamber, the Home Builders Association and former and present planning commission members who were are all universally opposed to changing the process, he was going to vote no.

The vote in January to bring the ordinance up for discussion was 3-2, with Nelson and Link opposing. The vote on the evening of April 6 was 1-4, with Collins voting yes.

City Increases Impact Fees

In one of the last items of the evening, the city staff recommended that the council consider updating of the Transportation Impact Fee rates.

During the economic downturn Visalia lowered, or kept steady, their impact fees to incentivize developers to build in Visalia instead of going somewhere else. This resulted in a $2.5 million deficit. Raising the fees now would not make up for lost ground, but would let the city break even in the future.

During a public hearing on the issue in March, staff recommended that council approve a fee schedule that would increase all categories by 11 percent, thereby providing an economic incentive “for both industrial/service commercial and hotel/motel development.” Keeping any increase to 11 percent would give developers an incentive to build here because other area cities charge more.

The city council voted 5-0 to raise the impact fee by 11 percent across the board, but exempted Industrial and service commercial. Cities up and down Highway 99 present very attractive packages to entice developers to build their warehouses in their industrial parks, and Visalia must remain proactive in staying competitive.

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