The Visalia City Council makes a lot of routine decisions on behalf of our community. On occasion, however, an individual or neighborhood in the city gets involved. We try to balance their input with staff reports and our own research. Similar to a judge in court, we try to render our final decision based upon the facts and merits, not upon which side has the most in attendance at a council meeting.
Such was the case with the Arco AM/PM application of Chandi Group USA to be built on the corner of Caldwell Avenue and West Street. That location has been zoned mixed commercial for many years.
Chandi Group USA has experience developing Arco AM/PMs throughout the state. They built and operate the one on Lovers Lane and have just finished building one on Plaza Drive. Both of these are well-designed, maintained and compliment the surrounding neighborhood.
The Caldwell project, however, is a little different. Although located on arterials, it is surrounded by some residential. The initial proposal was very large, including 10 fuel dispensers (Costco has 11), was to be located on almost two acres, included a convenience store with fast-food restaurant covering 6,000 square feet, had a 5,000-square-foot automated carwash, and an 18.5-foot-tall, 6,775-square-foot canopy, with underground fuel storage tanks at the northwest corner of the property. When the surrounding neighbors learned of this application, they organized and made their voices heard. Some City Council members met with them in advance to listen to their concerns.
The project came before the Planning Commission on April 9, which voted 4-1 to deny it as it existed at that date. The developer then appealed that decision to the City Council.
The City Council heard the matter on May 7 at the Convention Center, with more than 200 people in attendance. However, what the City Council considered May 7 was not the same plan that the Planning Commission denied April 9.
About one week before the City Council meeting, the developer presented a downsized plan. It now provided that the land to be developed was less than 1 1/2 acres; it deleted the carwash and vacuum bays, deleted the fast-food restaurant component and downsized the convenience store to 3,800 square feet, dropped the canopy height to 16 1/2 feet, and size to 4,370 square feet with eight fuel dispensers and moved the underground fuel storage tanks to the east side, to be a greater distance from neighboring homes.
The council was provided a new staff report, and many letters both pro and con from interested parties. Additionally, I spoke with each of the planning commissioners about why they had voted the way they had. All five of them indicated that they favored the project, but the four who voted against said that their main concern was the carwash and that the project was too large for the surrounding neighborhood.
At the May 7 meeting, the council took testimony from interested parties for two to three hours. There were some from the neighborhood who favored this downsized project, but they were outnumbered by those who opposed it in its entirety. After considering all testimony and relevant information, the council voted 5-0 to approve the downsized/revised site plan and, as part of that approval, further downsized the project to only allow six fuel dispensers. This approved project was now a standard-size gas station.
No facts or studies were presented showing that a standard-size gas station increases crime, homelessness, public drunkenness and disorder, or otherwise. To the contrary, Visalia has many fine gas stations that are clean and attractive, and take appropriate security measures. The Shannon Ranch gas station is an example of a popular location that is well-kept and an attractive addition to the neighborhood.
The neighborhood near Caldwell and West did an excellent job presenting its position on this project. The reality is that the neighbors won, since they may have had a much larger operation in their neighborhood if they had not gotten involved and let the city know of their concerns. Unfortunately, some in that neighborhood believed that they “lost” because they did not defeat the entire project. Neither side got everything they wanted.
This project will result in additional jobs for Visalians, was properly zoned and is located on a major commercial thoroughfare through Visalia. The neighborhood indicated to us that they would have preferred a Trader Joe’s or Chick-fil-A on that corner. Unfortunately, the city is not in the business of building and developing properties. Instead, we leave that to the private sector.
Again, congratulations to this neighborhood for its efforts, which resulted in a downsized project that will be more compatible. It is my hope that these residents, as well as many others, will continue to get involved with the political process, which will lead to Visalia being an even greater place