The Hanford City Council conducted one of its most consequential meetings on November 2, making sweeping decisions that will change the course of the city.
The council voted to annex seven city islands, abolish a zoning ordinance criticized as archaic, and reverse the zoning on an undeveloped 18 acre patch of Hidden Valley Park from residential to its prior state of open space.
Residents protest being annexed into the city
On the agenda were two public hearings, the first of which concerned annexing seven county islands into the city.
Many residents of the islands attended the meeting to protest the imminent annexation. No one spoke in favor.
John Doyel, Public Works Director, stated the city was essentially being pushed into a corner by the Kings County Board of Supervisors.
Doyel said that the supervisors made it clear that they would not let Hanford annex any additional land, whether in the city’s sphere of influence or not, unless they took over responsibility for the islands.
Diane Sharp, a Hanford City Councilmember, said that the county “had them over a barrel” and there was nothing they could do about it. Sharp reassured the residents that the city would try to minimize the disruptions to their rural life.
The vote was 3-1. Sharp voted for six of the seven annexations and abstained on one parcel due to a business conflict.
Sweeping changes to the zoning ordinance
The second public hearing concerned the protectionist zoning that Hanford implemented in the 1990s.
The zoning prohibits optometry, dental and medical offices, as well as labs and furniture stores, from locating outside the downtown retail zone.
The council voted 3-2 to change the zoning and allow professional offices to set up shop at Hanford’s two other commercial retail zones – at 12th and Lacey Boulevard and the Costco development at Highway 43.
Mayor Francisco Ramirez alongside councilmembers Kalish Morrow and Amanda Saltray voted in favor. Councilmember Art Brieno voted no; Sharp abstained.
The Hanford Planning Commission previously voted 3-0 against those changes in zoning at their October 21 meeting. The commissioners disagreed with allowing furniture stores and professional offices to locate in other retail commercial zones in the city.
The planning commission instead recommended that the council form a committee and explore zoning issues further before making any drastic changes so soon after businesses opened up after the pandemic.
Council disagreed and directed city staff to put the zoning issue on the November 2 agenda for debate.
During the public hearing, Dr. Brent Olsen spoke in favor of the changes.
He said because the downtown area “basically operates on bankers’ hours,” residents don’t have a lot of things happening at night.
Olsen said projects such as developing the Bastille is the type of thing that will bring people and businesses to downtown.
Another resident said he had been living in Hanford since 2003 and was waiting for the downtown to live up to its potential.
“It’s time to revitalize the region so it becomes a destination downtown and not a ghost town,” he said.
Michelle Brown, the Executive Director of Main Street Hanford, strongly disagreed.
“We do not have a ghost town. The town is thriving and the zoning is working,” Brown said.
She asked the council how they intended to encourage infill development without the current zoning
“We will see our city grow outward and we will see our downtown suffer,” she said.
About ten additional residents spoke against the change in zoning including two optometrists that have offices in the region.
Residents opposed to the change also complained that the council was not honoring the city’s General Plan which they referred to as “the city’s constitution.”
Gabrielle Myers, Hanford’s Community Development Director, explained that the changes put forth in the agenda are consistent with the plan.
Ramirez responded, countering residents’ arguments.
“The current zoning creates an artificial environment where you have to have optometrist, bankers and other professional offices downtown,” he said. “Downtown is my district. I hear how they close early.”
Ramirez said that 73% of downtown was occupied and that percentage should be closer to 90%. He also referenced a 2010 study which concluded that Hanford was losing $320m in sales because of their restrictive zoning.
He applauded former Mayor Dan Chin’s vision in the 1990s to restore the downtown through zoning and said that it “worked phenomenally.”
In the present-day, there are Amazon and Costco to compete with, Ramirez said, and the city needs to look at different options to revitalize their downtown, including less regulation and more incentive programs.
Ramirez believes that getting rid of the protectionist zoning will result in a vibrant night life and praised Hop Forged and the two recently opened pot dispensaries.
“I would like to see a downtown that is not just service based but more retail based. I had a retail space downtown and I hated the bankers hours. When most business are service based it’s hard to change the environment of closing up early,” she said.
Saltray added that it was just speculation that if the council changes the zoning it will lead to more blight.
“I see this as an opportunity to open the downtown up. I want to see entertainment, I want to see eateries, I want to see the downtown thrive,” she said.
Council votes to restore Hidden Valley to its original 38 acres
What started as a discussion about a possible November 2022 ballot measure asking the residents of Hanford what they wanted to do to the 18 undeveloped acres of Hidden Valley Park, turned into a surprise decision taken by the city council.
The council voted 4-1, with Sharp dissenting, to change the zoning of the undeveloped 18 acres back to open space from residential, thus ending 54 years of debate.
The city bought the 38.5 acres in 1967 and developed half of Hidden Valley Park in 1975. In 1978 the city council discussed possibly selling the other half, beginning 43 years of contention between the council and some concerned residents of Hanford.
Tensions culminated in March of 2017 when, under the guidance of City Manger Darrel Pyle and former Community Development Director Darlene Mata, the council voted to designate the 18 acres as surplus property. Soon after declaring the property as surplus the council rezoned the 18 acres as low density residential.
Now Ramirez wanted to right a perceived wrong.
“I was one of the strong advocates to make it surplus. I got some bad information at the time and I regret that to this very day. I should have never supported it,” said Ramirez.
Morrow said that she “would be remiss in not supporting development of the full 18 acres into park.”
“It’s my district and I promised to be a voice for them,” she added
Instead of having the council vote to put a measure on the ballot, Ramirez moved that the council vote to rezone the 18 undeveloped acres of Hidden Valley Park back to park land. With little debate, the council agreed.
Mark Pratter is an advocate who has worked tirelessly to save the 18 acres of parkland from developers.
“It was really Ramirez and Cifuentes’ leadership that got this done. After 50 years, unless this got resolved, they recognized that it would hamper the city’s ability to accomplish other important projects,” he said.