After more than three years of hard work the Hanford City Council was hoping, at its April 18 meeting, to finally approve Hanford’s 2035 General Plan.
Supporters of Hidden Valley Park had other plans, though, and successfully filibustered for more than two hours to extend the decision to Monday, April 24.
Many residents who spoke during the public hearing were unaware of the filibuster, but a park advocate, Nate Odom, recruited friends and acquaintances who support the park to speak and fill in the time as the clock edged towards 10pm — the previously agreed ending time for that particular meeting.
“Now the city council has the opportunity to attend the Hidden Valley Park event,” said Odom.
The April 23 event is a music festival and rally to save the park. The event will last from 10am – 9pm and will feature a series of live bands throughout the day along with food and refreshments.
The April 18 meeting was cut off at 10:00pm because of a prior decision made at the April 4 city council meeting. Anticipating the public hearing and General Plan decision might go all night, Mayor David Ayers suggested that the April 18 meeting end at 10pm. The other council members agreed.
As the clock hit 10pm, David Ayers, to the relief of those in attendance, stuck to his guns and ended the meeting even though Councilmembers Francisco Ramirez and Justin Mendes wanted to continue.
Ayers formally closed the public hearing portion of the meeting and set the next meeting for April 24 at 7pm.
Three major roadblocks for the 2035 General Plan emerged during the April 18 public hearing.
Shelly Talbert Johnson, executive director of Main Street Hanford, voiced the group’s opposition to the new zoning that would allow furniture, and medical/dental/optometry offices to open almost anywhere in the City. Johnson predicted that with the new zoning businesses will leave downtown, causing blight and increasing crime.
Richard Harriman and Doug McIssack, representing Hanford Environmental Awareness Team and San Joaquin Valley Environmental Defense Center, explained that, in his view, the primary problem with Hanford’s General Plan is that it is not a general plan for the 21st Century.
Harriman requested that the city include a plan that shows pedestrian and bicycle trails that provide access to all parks and all amenities such as was done in Visalia.
“We request that there be interconnectivity between the small parks,” he said.
Community Development Director, Darlene Mata, countered that the city’s plan does include interconnectivity.
McIssack explained that the language in the general plan concerning the interconnectivity, preservation of Mussel Slough, wetlands, open space, and most other aspects that improve the quality of life for its residents, was woefully vague and would not stand up if challenged in court.
He said that a city’s General Plan is its constitution. The plan can’t just state the city’s policies but must be clear and unambiguous in articulating a plan on “how to achieve their vision.”
Ground Hog Day For Hanford Residents
The overwhelming majority of comments during the general plan’s public hearing were to save the undeveloped 18 acres of Hidden Valley Park.
Although all past city councils have voted against selling the park, the issue has resurfaced approximately 10 times in the last 17 years.
29 people came forward to speak in support of the park during the April 18 meeting, and hundreds of residents have done the same during previous public hearings.
Before the public hearing began, Mendes asked city staff what the philosophy was behind rezoning the 18 acres as residential.
Mata said that the current philosophy is to build small neighborhood parks to accommodate each residential area. Hanford’s goal is 3.5 acres of open space per 1000 people. Mata did not say that the money received from the sale of 18 acres of Hidden Valley Park would be dedicated to build these neighborhood parks but that they would be built using developer impact fees.
It is assumed that the money from the sale of Hidden Valley Park would go into the general fund.
Mendes also asked the staff about the discrepancy between Planning Commissioner Dennis Ham’s calculations of open space and the city’s numbers.
Mata responded that it’s complicated but “his summary is flawed.”
The disagreement about whose numbers on Hanford’s open space are correct has been a bone of contention for years.
Mickey Stoddard, a parks and recreation commissioner and former city recreation supervisor, spoke at the September 1, 2015 City Council meeting and pointed out that the Bob Hill Youth Athletic Complex (26.2 acres), SOCOM (40 acres), Softball Complex (32 acres), BMX Track (4.7 acres), Harris Street Ball Park (4.4 acres), and Hanford Joint Educational Softball Complex (21 acres) are fenced-in and locked up.
That represents 128.3 acres of what the city has designated as public open space.
“Your vote will not be forgotten,” Stoddard said during the public hearing.
He suggested that they own their vote and feature on their campaign material during the next election their vote on selling the park.
Dan Chin, a former Hanford Mayor, said he has been where the council sits now on voting for the general plan.
“Your role is to carry out the will of the majority,” Chin said. “Are you listening to the people and is it reflective of our desires?”
Paul Broussard reminded the council that cities are known for their parks.
Fresno is known for Woodward Park, which is 300 acres, and Visalia is known for Mooney Grove, which is 100 acres. He asked the council where its sense of pride was in having only a 20-acre park.
Odom said it was the dream of their forbearers that Hanford have a 40-acre park when the population was only 16,500 people.
Many people echoed this sentiment, saying that neighborhood parks are too small to host community activities or large sporting events. Small parks can’t bring the entire community together in one place to celebrate the holidays or for such events as the music festival on Sunday, April 23.
The City Council Responds
After the meeting Devine and Ayers said they were both park supporters though they would like something done with the vacant land.
Devine said that it all comes down to money.
“After we developed the 18 acres we would need to hire another person to Parks and Recreation to maintain it,” Devine said.
Caliva, a medical marijuana grower interested in doing business in Hanford, said that the company would bring in, at the least, $10 million in extra revenue a year and most likely more.
There are other A companies right behind Caliva knocking on Hanford’s door wanting to set up business.
When asked if it would not be prudent to wait and see if the extra revenue materializes before losing parkland, Devine said, “That subject has only come up with people who use common sense.”
“That’s a lot of money if it happens, but that we still need to come to an agreement about the park,” Ayers said.
Mark Pratter, a park advocate, suggested a compromise in which both council members seemed interested.
Pratter suggested extending Rogers Road to the north through the vacant land and the nine acres to the east of the road be developed as possibly residential. The nine remaining acres to the west, contiguous with the developed region of Hidden Valley Park, would be developed as parkland.
Ramirez said it’s all politics.
He said that the council would have to capitulate to the demands of Main Street Hanford if they didn’t rezone the 18 acres of Hidden Valley Park.
“Their end game is to not change downtown zoning if we don’t vote on changing the zoning for Hidden Valley Park,” Ramirez said, adding that a huge amount of compromise already took place in developing the new zoning ordinance for downtown.
Ramirez said that there were many citizen summits and a goals-and-objectives meeting while developing the General Plan where residents could give their input — but no one said anything about the park.
Council Vote Heading Toward A Deadlock
During the March 7 meeting the City Council voted to list the 18 undeveloped acres of Hidden Valley Park as surplus.
This is the first step in the process of selling the property. The vote was 3-2, with Devine and Ayers against.
Councilmember Sue Sorenson has recused herself from voting on the General Plan because she owns property in downtown Hanford which creates a conflict of interest.
That means the vote on Monday could be 2-2.
Derrel Pyle, Hanford City Manager, said that if there is a 2-2 vote the General Plan is not adopted. “Between the four of them they will have to compromise to go forward.”
Pyle said that if the general Plan is not adopted that the Environmental Impact Report will go stale and become legally challenged. He said that Pratter’s compromise might be a possibility but that his proposal never made it past the public comment podium.
What Are the Residents’ Recourses?
According to John Sarsfield, local lawyer and former District Attorney for San Benito County, if the city council votes to rezone Hidden Valley Park the residents have a few options.
He said that the residents could put an initiative on the ballot requiring that rezoning of any park land needs to be approved first by the residents of Hanford. Another option would be to recall those council members that voted to rezone the parcel.
Hidden Valley Park was purchased by the City of Hanford in 1967. The land was bought with taxpayer money with the intent that the 40 acres remain open space, be it a wilderness area, sports facility or developed parkland.
One young woman during the public hearing echoed this sentiment saying, “We should be building a home to bring the community together, not just houses. We should be looking after our future generations.”