City Council denies appeal to overturn Planning Commission’s approval of apartments at Shirk and Doe

By

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

VISALIA – If all decisions in life were made according to what the most vocal people want, than cities would have nothing but single-family homes and everyone would live on a cul-de-sac. But this majority-rule utopia is obviously fraught with issues that city planning must take into consideration, such as traffic flow, public safety access, affordable housing and the inevitable intersection of different land uses.

That was the message of the Visalia City Council on Oct. 16 after upholding the Planning Commission’s approval of a project that would build a 200-unit apartment complex at the corner of Shirk Street and Doe Avenue.

The plan proposes 21 two-story buildings that will house 88 one-bedroom apartments and 112 two-bedroom apartments, nine garage structures, carports and street parking with a total of 433 parking stalls. The complex will also include a club house building with an arbor, park area, open space, swimming pool and spa.

Andy Chamberlin with the city’s planning department said developer Christopher Owhadi held two meetings with the residents to listen to their concerns. Chamberlin said Owhadi made several concessions in his conditions to address the issues including building a 7- to 8-foot block wall where the complex faces surrounding homes; exceeding and, in same cases, quadrupling the required set back of apartments facing the subdivision to the east from 25 feet to between 35 and 120 feet; relocating and adding noise-dampening barriers to the large air conditioning units to cool the two-story apartment buildings; planting trees in front of second story windows overlooking backyards; adding 133 parking stalls to prevent street parking on narrow roads outside the gated community; and reducing the number of apartment units from 261 down to 200 to alleviate possible traffic congestion in an already congested area.

Residents Rally
But about 150 people in attendance at the appeal hearing, which was moved to the Convention Center to accommodate the crowd, disagreed that the developer had done enough or even listened to their concerns. The public hearing was a result of an appeal filed by Rashelle Nelson, who lives on West Vine Court near the proposed complex, requesting the City Council overturn the Planning Commission’s Aug. 28 approval of the project. Nelson was among 16 people to speak against the development and presented a petition signed by more than 140 neighbors. She said the sheer number of residents who showed up to speak against the project, a recent change in zoning of the property and the confusion of homeowners regarding the zoning change were all reason enough for the council to deny the project.

“It is uncommon for a project to receive so much opposition in the City of Visalia,” she said. “I’m very disappointed that it took filing an appeal to get the City to hear our concerns.”

Emily Amschel, who also lives on West Vine Court, said she bought her home in February and was shocked to find out that all of the schools in northwest Visalia are overcrowded. She said she was further shocked to hear of plans to add 200 apartments to the area when Ridgeview Middle School is already at capacity in just its second year.

“Visalia Unified is already planning a bond measure to build a fifth high school but that is year away,” she said.

Lorraine Filimino bought her home on West Vine Court in December. She said she sold her home in Salinas, Calif. and moved to northwest Visalia to escape the crime of the apartments that surrounded her home there. She said even though it is a gated complex, she was concerned the developer would be unable to find tenants willing to pay the high price of renting an upscale apartment in Tulare County and would end up converting them to more affordable, low rent apartments.

“I pay $1,000 per month for my mortgage, so $1,400 is very expensive for an apartment,” she said.

Patrick Hoffman said he built his “dream home” in the neighborhood of Shirk to “get away from exactly what is being proposed.” He said his former home in Visalia was surrounded by multi-family housing which brought crime that dragged down what was once a wonderful subdivision.

“This is a big city LA project by a big city LA developer and is not right for our town,” Hoffman said. “We will have to live with the negative effects of this project for the rest of our lives.”

Council Counters
After hearing some additional comments from the school district, bank and the property management firm that will run the apartment complex, the City Council began making their case for denying the appeal and approving the project one by one.

Councilman Greg Collins said nearly all of the apartment complexes in Visalia are criticized for similar reasons but, for the most part, none of them ever hold to be true. Councilman Phil Cox said the residents living near the proposed complex should be praising the developer for making “huge concessions” on the project when he probably could have forced the city to take or leave a lesser project and save a lot of time and money. Collins, Cox and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Link all agreed that school overcrowding has and always will be apart of living in Visalia and that apartment complexes are preferable neighbors to service commercial uses, which, according to the General Plan, includes auto sales and repair, storage facilities, equipment rental, wholesale businesses, and retail not typically located in shopping centers.

“I have a hard time believing that anyone would want to buy a home next to a service commercial piece of property,” Link said.

Councilman Steve Nelson made the motion to deny the appeal noting that if the site were to remain service commercial, that developer would be held to a much lower standard than those building the apartment complex.

“Would I want a mechanic shop or would I rather have an apartment complex that is upscale and gated?” he asked rhetorically.

The motion passed 4-1 with Mayor Warren Gubler the lone dissenting vote.

Developer Doubletake
Watching a long line of people line up for public comment was a scene that was all too familiar for Christopher Owhadi who had already seen a similar project be overturned by the Council almost exactly one year earlier.

In January 2015, Fresno-based Ocean Point Development, which specializes in building multifamily housing in the Central Valley, purchased 8.35 acres at the corner of Ben Maddox and K Street in the south east corner of Visalia. The Planning Commission approved his project on Sept. 12, 2016 despite opposition from many residents who voiced similar concerns of traffic, privacy and property values. On Oct. 17, 2016 the City Council overturned the commission’s decision citing a lack of multi-family zoning and because the project did not conform with the City’s General Plan, which was adopted just two years earlier but had not taken effect when the project application was filed.

Despite losing $250,000 in expenses and two years on a project, Owhadi said he continued talks with city staff who encouraged him to find another location for the project.

“We decided to go at it one more time,” Owhadi said.

Prior to purchasing the 22.5 acres on Shirk and Doe, Owhadi said Ocean Point Development carefully investigated the current zoning and the General Plan zoning of the property to ensure they were aligned with the project. Over the next year, Owhadi said he went back and forth with the planning department to mitigate all of the issues raised by nearby residents, including paying for a noise study with a third-party contractor that was selected by city staff.

“We want to be part of the community and we want to be a good neighbor,” Owhadi said. “They asked for concessions and we want to make concessions and want to work with the community. Approve this development and I will build a project everyone will be proud of.”

The only person to speak in favor the project that wasn’t the developer was Zachary Bland. A recent graduate of Fresno State University, Bland said there was a lack of safe, upscale rental properties in Visalia that catered to young professionals.

“Projects like this could provide more access to my age group which is severely underserved,” Bland said. “I’d like to enjoy the same type of area that you live in.”

Start typing and press Enter to search