The battle lines have been drawn, demands have been made and now a date is set for the next skirmish in a war to keep what could become Visalia’s largest gas station out of an upscale neighborhood at the southern end of town.
Already operating a pair of ARCO filling stations in the city, Indio-based real estate developer the Chandi Group is eyeing an expansion. Its plans for a long vacant lot at the southeast corner of Caldwell Avenue and West Street include a 17,000-square-foot facility with more than a dozen pumping stations, a car wash, convenience store and drive-through restaurant.
The scheme has already had its first review by the Visalia Planning Commission, and a second public hearing is now on the calendar. Area residents dead set against the idea of such a behemoth as their new neighbor are ready for the fight.
The hearing will be held at 7pm Monday, April 9 at the Visalia Convention Center. A capacity crowd is expected to attend.
Not willing to wait, the anti-ARCO group has held weekly meetings for several months to plan its strategy, and in February they played host to Visalia Mayor Warren Gubler.
Gubler got a tour of the proposed construction site and surrounding neighborhood, as well as an earful of complaints.
“I came because I wanted to listen tonight. This has not reached the Council, so I have not studied this,” Gubler told the group. “At some point, I suspect it will come before the Council, so really I just want to hear what the neighborhood concerns are.”
The list of the group’s concerns is long and detailed.
Primary among them are the facility’s size, the traffic, noise and light pollution it will create.
Those opposing the ARCO also fear Chandi Group isn’t being entirely honest about how it will do business should the facility be built.
They say insiders have tipped them off the developers plan to use the site for fleet refueling and to service large semi-trailer trucks from nearby large businesses such as Walmart, Target and Costco.
“This will actually be the largest truck stop in Visalia,” said Robin Hernandez, a leader in the effort to stop the construction. “There is no other that is larger.”
The anti-ARCO group had attempted to negotiate directly with Chandi Group to address their concerns, but communications faltered when the developers learned they had consulted an attorney. Chandi Group has now resumed discussions.
An email from Chandi spokesman Tom Freeman sent to the group denies any plan to service semi-trailer trucks at the site.
“Additionally, we clarified for the city and public, this has never been a site proposed for a truck stop,” Freeman wrote.
Out of Step
The size of the proposed ARCO isn’t the group’s only concern. The nature of the business, they say, goes against the grain, spoiling more than four decades of city planning. The document submitted by Chandi Group is full of errors and pitfalls, the group contends.
“We have the entire 146-page document that has been submitted and we have gone through it ad nauseam,” Hernandez said.
The plan, the group contends, would fundamentally change the feel of their relatively quiet neighborhood. The gas station–which will be surrounded on three sides by newly-constructed, high-end homes–would become the 19th alcohol sales point within a mile of the intersection of West and Caldwell.
Demons in the Details
Mistakes and inaccuracies are rife in planning documents, according to the anti-ARCO faction, and Chandi Group misstates the impact its facility will have on the neighborhood.
Chandi Group’s original sound study was inaccurate, reporting the neighborhood was experiencing a higher level of background noise pollution than is actually present.
Chandi Group has submitted a new sound study for city review, but those opposed to the gas station say there is a similar problem with its light pollution study.
“The calculation by Chandi Group that has been submitted to the Planning Commission is actually inaccurate,” Hernandez said. “They have used the wrong measurements.”
The ARCO station’s future neighbors fear the excessive lighting used at fueling stations will create an invasive light dome over their homes, especially if the station is open around the clock.
They also say the presence of fuel storage tanks will prevent some residents in close proximity from getting FHA insurance for their mortgages. And, the anti-ARCO group still believes refueling of fleet vehicles is planned for the site, as well as showers, a feature of many truck stops.
They also say the ARCO will increase crime in their neighborhood.
Chandi Group Responds
While Chandi Group wasn’t talking publicly about its intentions for several months, it kept abreast of the concerns the facility created, and has made several concessions and changes to the development.
“A noise study has been supplied to the city as well. This is a new study and is a credible account of that teams findings,” Chandi Group’s spokesman wrote in an email to the anti-ARCO group. “We have worked diligently to reduce our lighting footprint and fully comply with the cities lighting regulations.”
Significantly, the proposed fueling station will not operate on a 24-hour basis, Chandi Group says.
“We also reduced our hours of operation, restricted fuel delivery to the store, specified we use state of the art fuel vapor recovery systems for automobiles and light pick up trucks, and the same can be said for the fuel delivery vehicle,” according to Freeman’s email.
Chandi Group is also taking steps to minimize noise and crime.
“We added a sound wall to address your concerns and completely changed the direction of our proposed car wash,” the Chandi email states. “We have also pledged to work closely with the police department, county sheriff, and district attorney to ensure the safety of our community, customers, and public. Our building and grounds are designed with prevention in mind.”
Neighbors Not Satisfied
Hernandez believes the concessions from Chandi Group may only be a delaying tactic. She insists a plan is still in the works to bring commercial refueling to her neighborhood.
“We have been told–again by someone who is close to this information–one of the ways they plan to make money off of this in a residential area is by selling fleet accounts,” she said. “That’s going to greatly increase what would already be a traffic problem.”
Hernandez’s tipster also says a set of showers is still in the works.
“They said if they don’t have the showers, and it passes through the Planning Commission and the City Council, in less than a year showers will be put in,” Hernandez said.
A lack of details about the plumbing at the facility, she says, is a tip-off.
“We can see stall, stall, stall, where you might have the showers, but where’s the plumbing?” she asked.
Conditions and Restrictions
Mayor Gubler said many of the group’s concerns–once presented to the Planning Commission at the April 9 hearing–could be addressed with conditional-use permits that limit how Chandi Group can operate.
“The Planning Commission they can probably put some restrictions on that if Chandi doesn’t like he can appeal, and if you don’t like you can appeal to the Council,” Gubler said. “The City Council, likewise, has the discretion to put on restrictions.”
An ARCO station constructed on Dinuba Boulevard and similar to the one proposed on Caldwell had negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, with the owners violating terms of their conditional operating permit. The City Council stepped in.
“After a certain hour, all they could have was the little AM/PM logo lit up. It came before us because they didn’t meet that condition or criteria,” the mayor said. “They were leaving the lights on, so it came to us somehow.”
Project to Proceed
While Chandi Group is now talking again–and has agreed to make what appear to be substantive changes to their plans–they won’t consider moving their project to another location elsewhere in the city.
“(Chandi Group’s owner) directed these changes, in good faith, to address concerns we learned of while reading newspaper reports,” the email from Chandi Group states. “While we made the above changes we will not be able to meet your demands to move the project.”
They are also asking their reluctant would-be neighbors to have faith in their good intentions.
“You have my word that we will be good neighbors and present the community with a project we can all be proud of provided we are approved to proceed,” Freeman wrote on behalf of Chandi Group. “We respect your right to share your concerns and hope that our efforts in this matter are appreciated.”