In what seemed a foregone conclusion to those opposed, the Visalia City Council unanimously approved a plan to construct a gas station at the southeast corner of Caldwell Avenue and West Street. There is no appeal option to the Council’s decision.
At the eleventh hour, Chandi Group USA–which had seen its plans for the city’s largest gas station shot down by the Planning Commission–filed an appeal with a scaled-down version of its original plans. Those called for a 20-hose ARCO AM/PM gas station, car wash, drive-through restaurant and convenience store in a nearly 20,000-square-foot building.
“It’s just a gas station,” said Mayor Warren Gubler in describing the changes.
The hastily-prepared replacement plan reduced the number of hoses, and it eliminated the restaurant, car wash, and size of the store to 3,800 square feet. Chandi Group USA had already agreed to limit its hours of operation. The Council would eventually add a restriction to just 12 fueling hoses.
The new design and plan also sport a lower canopy, restricted hours for deliveries, and fuel storage tanks have been relocated to avoid impacting the ability of surrounding homeowners to purchase federal mortgage insurance. However, the station will serve fleet vehicles to increase its customer traffic.
Chandi Group USA’s future neighbors are fearful of how the business will change the character of the 40-plus-year-old neighborhood of mostly upscale housing. Many of them banded together to fight the gas station into a group they call Oppose ARCO.
As at the previous Planning Commission meeting, they and their supporters turned out to pack the temporary council chambers set up at the Visalia Convention Center. They’ve complained long and loud about the traffic, noise, crime, pollution and shift in nature of their neighborhood long and loudly. They kept at it at the May 7 Council meeting.
“Nothing but trouble,” was how Susan Cooker, who lives one block northwest of the construction site, described it.
For her next-door neighbor, Tony Hernandez, the concern was one of future compliance.
“Who’s going to enforce this (Council-placed restrictions on the AM/PM)?” he asked.
Wayne Girard, who lives just seven doors down from where the AM/PM will eventually stand and who was a grocery delivery driver for more than a decade, worried about increased truck traffic bringing the store’s supplies.
“The deliveries will be endless,” he said.
‘We Don’t Matter’
Members of Oppose ARCO were disappointed with the Council’s decision, and felt the decision had been made before the hearing was held.
“Before the meeting, we thought we had a good chance of the Planning Commission’s decision being upheld,” said Robin Hernandez, who led the fight against this development. “Guess we were naive. Two hours of us presenting our positions for nothing. We didn’t matter. We don’t matter.”
Vice Mayor Bob Link, who represents District 2, where the gas station will be constructed, said he had larger concerns than just the few hundred who turned up to protest the development.
“I know I represent you as your councilperson, and I appreciate very much that, but you’re a small neighborhood,” Link said. “I have a huge area, so I can represent a neighborhood or I can represent a district.”
He also echoed Councilman Phil Cox’s sentiment that living near a gas station is not as bad as those protesting have described it, and he said the dream of having a boutique grocery store come to Visalia was an empty one.
“I think everybody in this room, plus everybody in this city, and certainly everybody at this table (the Council) would like to see a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, but that’s not reality today, folks,” Link said. “We’d love to say to you, ‘You have to put such and such on that piece of property, but that’s not our responsibility. We cannot tell people what they can do.”
‘Nothing Left for Us to Say’
Hernandez said that although some in her neighborhood are considering continuing the fight, perhaps in court, she is done.
“The City Council has spoken,” she said. “They’re backing this, and so there’s nothing left for us to say.”
Mayor Gubler, despite Hernandez’s acceptance of defeat, applauded the results she and her group achieved. He couched it in a warning for future developers looking at Visalia.
“I don’t think that this developer initially listened to your neighborhood, and that’s too bad,” he said. “I think a lot of these issues could have been taken care of, perhaps, up front, but for whatever reason there was no communication going on back then.”
Every member of the Planning Commission who voted against the scheme told Gubler they felt the project was initially too large, he said. He described it as “way too big.”
He also spoke to the accusation the city was out to “deny negotiation by an application” with the Council taking final say.
He said the move was intended to avoid an endless cycle of reconsideration.
“The reality is that it would go back to the Planning Commission. I suspect that most of you would say the same thing (in protest),” Gubler said. “The Planning Commission would make the decision. It would come back on appeal from one side or the other back to the City Council.”
‘Look at the Facts’
Councilman Greg Collins made a bid to ease the concerns of those living in the effected neighborhood.
“It’s been my experience that often times, once the project gets put in and some time passes, people actually forget what they were concerned about,” he said.
His decision, he said, was made clear by the city’s laws and policy. The project fit the area’s zoning and is “consistent with general plan.”
“While it would be simple for me to concur with the crowd, that’s not what we’re elected for,” Collins said. “We’re here to look at the facts of the issue and weigh those facts.”