Visalia’s Commercial Square Footage Approaching Growth Tier III

Visalia City Planner Paul Bernal

On January 17th, the Visalia City Planner and staff held a joint meeting with the city council and the planning commission to seek direction on the growth of Visalia.

Paul Bernal, Visalia City Planner, began by commenting that this was the first time in four years that the city council and the planning commission have been in a joint meeting. He called it “long overdue” and emphasized how glad he was that they were meeting to discuss the future growth of the city.

The meeting was held at the convention center to accommodate both bodies of government and the public.

The planning commissioners and city council members unanimously approved to direct staff to work on putting together a new plan for the possible expansion into Tier II of Visalia’s growth boundary. In addition, they directed staff to research the efficacy and necessity of a possible Agricultural Mitigation Program.

“Growth Tiers”

Associate Planner Josh Dan gave an overview of the events triggering the need for direction from the city council and planning commission. Dan began by explaining how Visalia implemented growth boundaries in 1978 to encourage in-fill, or development of under-used parcels within city limits, and discourage sprawl development in the outskirts of the city.

In 2014, a general plan was drafted with a three-tier system to account for any future growth. Thresholds were set on residential permits, commercial square-footage, industrial square -footage, and regional square-footage.

Visalia is currently in Tier I. However, it has come to the city’s attention that some of the thresholds set in 2014 will soon be met. And one threshold in particular has already been surpassed, prompting the city to consider moving into Tier II.

Dan explained that staff caught a mistake in the commercial square-footage threshold. This mistake unfortunately wasn’t caught early enough and the current commercial square-footage in Visalia is at 796,608 square-feet, a number that not only far exceeds the Tier I threshold, but is now approaching Tier III.

But this isn’t the only reason staff are asking for direction into Tier II. Dan also revealed that current residential building permits will reach the limit within 3 years. And industrial square -footage is projected to max out before the end of the year.

The Debate

It’s difficult to refute the impending need for city expansion with thresholds exceeding or nearing their limit. But Councilman Greg Collins was concerned about expansion for multiple reasons.

He mentioned the growth boundary keeps waste disposal and emergency services from having to travel greater distances. He also cited inner-city development as a reason to keep the boundary and was wary about Visalia growing too much in one particular direction.

“If you go up to Fresno today, all the growth and all of the development is in the north. And guess what, the other three quadrants they don’t care about. I don’t want that happening to Visalia…The growth boundary lines really pressurize the lands within to develop. From a fiscal point of view, I think we should be more about the business of making that happen, than a rush to open it up.”

While Collins was hesitant on any expansion at all, other public leaders were more concerned that waiting too long could cause the city to miss out on opportunities.

Councilman Brian Poochigan commented that he would like to see the city expand the growth boundary for commercial, but more importantly for industrial land.

“Industrial is such a big project, especially with what we’re seeing in the industrial department with UPS. I think we need to have that land open in case someone big wants to come in and develop something there.”

Poochigan also expressed his skepticism about the need for more commercial land, considering the string of stores that have been closing in Visalia. And he was less concerned about residential land, stating that he didn’t think there was a need for more.

Councilman Phil Cox, on the other hand, was worried that waiting too long on residential land expansion might drive new homeowners out of the market. Cox believed inner-city lot prices may go up so high that homeowners may be unable to afford them.

Matt Ainley, Principle Engineer at Four Creeks Incorporated, took to public comment on the topic of residential. He advised the council that he gets many inquiries about residential land because there aren’t enough prospects within the city.

Vice Mayor Steven Nelsen had an open perspective on the growth boundary issue, touching briefly on the inefficiency of forcing in-fill and the importance of considering every aspect of growth.

“I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting to get every lot in the city filled…I think we’d be doing a disservice if we don’t open up for investigation from the staff to look at how we can implement our growth. And I think we need to look at all facets that came forth tonight: industrial, commercial, and residential.”

Mayor Bob Link held a similar viewpoint, expressing his desire for the staff to look into multiple land uses.

Collins and Cox were adamant on waiting for more information about vacant land and lots but staff assured them they would come back with an analysis about what’s still left in Tier I.

A motion was passed for the staff to look into expansion of all land uses and come back with a report within 6-8 months.

Preventing Loss of Farmland

 The staff then presented information about a potential Agricultural Mitigation Program (AMP), which would help diminish the loss of farmland as a result of city expansion. The AMP would go “hand in hand” as the city moves from tier I to tiers II and III.

Staff presented the two types of AMP’s: Mitigation Banks and In-Lieu Fees.

The City of Tulare and the county have implemented their own AMP’s to conserve agriculture. The City of Tulare, in particular, went with an in-lieu fees approach.

Cox explained that a mitigation bank, the purchasing or designation of ag easements, would be the easier approach and was more wary of the in-lieu fees involved with land management agencies. He was also skeptical about needing an AMP at all, stating that “Visalia has operated very well without one in the past.”

Ainley advised the council to tread lightly with AMP’s. He was mostly concerned about creating a “market within a market”.

“If you can only buy ag easement properties between the city of Visalia and Tulare, what’s that going to do to the prices of ag land between Visalia and Tulare? Everyone’s going to rush to go buy them, because the city is going to be buying ag easements across them…Basically you’re artificially elevating the market.”

Ainley also mentioned that if not enough ag easement properties are available that may raise prices for home buyers who will have to pay more per acreage because of ag mitigation easement.

After half an hour of discussion, a motion was passed for staff to hire a consultant to research the efficacy and necessity of AMP and report findings within 6-8 months.

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