Visalia takes first step to unlocking new development

City council approves contract with Provost & Pritchard to reinstate an ag preservation program to allow new housing subdivisions, second Costco to move forward

VISALIA – After losing in Tulare County Superior Court over the summer, the city of Visalia is preparing to rekey its ag preservation program into its 30-year growth plan to unlock new housing and a second Costco waiting to move forward.

At its Sept. 19 meeting, the council unanimously approved a $150,000 contract with Provost & Pritchard, an engineering and planning services company with an office in Visalia, to outline parameters for an Agriculture Mitigation Program (AMP) and to draft an Agricultural Preservation Ordinance (APO) for the city to implement as part of the judge’s ruling. 

Under the city’s initial 2030 General Plan, the document guiding the city’s growth, developers, primarily home builders, would have had to pay into a fund the city would use to preserve ag land elsewhere in exchange for allowing other farmland to be developed. In August 2021, the city amended the General Plan Amendment, removing the AMP requirement for developing Tiers 2 and 3. 

The city’s decision was challenged by the Sierra Club, an environmental association, and Central Valley Partnership, a social and environmental justice group. The two groups filed a petition for writ of mandate contending the city lacked substantial evidence to support removal of the AMP requirement; and that the city abused its discretion by preparing an “addendum” to a previously certified environmental impact report (EIR) for the policy change rather than going through the process to do a new or supplemental EIR.

On July 21, Tulare County Superior Court Judge David Mathias ruled against the city over their decision to forego charging ag land mitigation fees from developers who want to bring farmland into the city for urban development. 

 “The court finds use of an addendum in the circumstances of this case is not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and, therefore, grants the petition,” Judge Mathis wrote in his decision. “The court’s ruling is confined to this limited issue, and specifically does not extend to the ultimate issue of whether the AMP requirement may or should be removed from the general plan.”

In an interview after the ruling, city manager Leslie Caviglia confirmed the ruling paused all development in Tiers 2 and 3, including a second Costco planned for the northeast corner of Shirk Road and Riggin Avenue, until the city can reinstitute the AMP, delaying and possibly affecting the warehouse grocer’s decision to bring another $250 million in annual sales and 250 jobs to the city. 

The city’s decision to contract with Provost & Pritchard to develop the program marks a critical step forward for commercial projects like Costco and 1,500 acres in new applications for subdivisions in Tier 2. Home builders ready to develop in Tier 2 also have to wait until the city can fully reinstate the AMP and approve the APO. 

“Provost & Pritchard understands that the adoption of the Agricultural Preservation Ordinance is a necessary step for projects in the Tier II and Tier III growth boundaries to move forward,” the company said in its proposal. “With a number of active development projects located in Tier II, the City has expressed that the timeline for adoption is a consideration.”

According to the letter, Provost & Pritchard will begin with a kickoff meeting with city staff and then touch base with city staff every two weeks. After the initial meetings, the company will begin creating flyers, social media posts and information on the city’s website to educate the public on the objectives. The company will also reach out to other cities and land trusts that have experience with ag mitigation program management and coordination and document lessons learned from their experience. 

Provost & Pritchard will then schedule a work session at a council meeting to share the information it has collected and present a draft of an ordinance outlining parameters of the program. Parameters will include identifying which land is subject to ag preservation, defining what “equivalent” ag land means, how the city wants to engage with entities through the program and to look at the option of creating in-lieu fees to pay for ag preservation projects as an alternative to securing and dedicating ag conservation easements on their own. 

After a public review period, the company will present a final version of the ordinance for a council vote. Provost & Pritchard estimates the entire process will take seven to nine months beginning in September 2022. 

Mayor Steve Nelson, who has been a strong advocate of no mitigation fee in the past, told The Sun-Gazette the city is “ready to move on” and allow the fee as demanded by the Sierra Club and others.

Nelsen says an appeal of the ruling would be both time consuming and uncertain, requiring a whole new EIR process. Nelsen is concerned that “we keep the momentum going“ on new development including pending new residential annexations and important projects like the Costco in NW Visalia.

-John Lindt contributed to this report.

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