Highway 99 commerce center in the passing lane

Tulare County Planning Commission unanimously approves Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center despite concerns voiced by one Visalia City councilman


VISALIA – A visitor and commerce center off Highway 99 is in the passing lane to approval.

At its Nov. 14 meeting, the Tulare County Planning Commission unanimously waived the project through to the next stop at the Board of Supervisors. Called the Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center, the project would be located on 126 acres at the southeast corner of Highway 99 and Avenue 280. Proposed by partners Fred Ruiz and Bill Travis, the highway commercial center would be built in phases over the next eight to 10 years and will include a Valley Children’s Medical Group Specialty Care Center.

Phase 1 of the project will total just under 13 acres and include a 60,000-square foot clinic for Valley Children’s Hospital and 22,950 square feet for two gas stations and four fast food restaurants. Phase 1 would also include nine electric vehicle charging stations. Phase 2 will include a total of 97 acres including 986,000 square feet in two additional fast food establishments as well as three hotels, three offices, two sit-down restaurants, a visitor center, and a 725,000-square foot regional retailer, such as Ikea, Bass Pro Shop, or even an online fulfillment center. Phase 2 would likely be built out in four sub-phases between 2021 and 2028. The remaining 12.9 acres would be used for a storm water basin and a potential waste water treatment plant along with roadway rights-of-way.

The project is located within the City of Visalia’s 20-year urban development boundary and anticipates being annexed into the city as it grows out to Highway 99. While the Visalia City Council did not opt to comment on the project, councilmember Greg Collins did speak with the caveat that he was only representing himself and not the entire council. A city planner by trade and involved in the creation of Visalia’s last three General Plans dating back to 1978, Collins said the project was “condevelopment, preserving agriculture land, protecting its airport flight paths for expansion.

“There’s a city of 135,000 people down the street but there is no consideration of the policies that city has approved,” Collins quipped.

Collins went on to say that when the property was annexed into the city limits, it would stretch the city’s public safety services and public works infrastructure. He said the highway commercial development would directly compete with the city’s attempt to “hold the line” of retail on Mooney Boulevard, attract major employers to the city’s Industrial Park. He also claimed the environmental impact report was insufficient because it did not do enough to identify alternative sites.
“Toys ‘R’ Us is gone, Orchard Supply Hardware is out of business and we are trying to infill that,” Collins said. “This leaves us at a real disadvantage.”

Aaron Bock, Chief Planner for the county’s Resource Management Agency, said he also has significant planning experience and pointed out that the city did not pre-zone the property in its General Plan, leaving the door open for the applicant to use the land for anything compatible with the County’s General Plan.

“The city expanded its sphere of influence to that property which makes it viable for annexation [and development],” Bock retorted.

According to the Visalia Planning Department’s comment letter on the project, the properties were included in the city’s Sphere of Influence in April 2018. Visalia’s 2012 Regional Commercial Land Use Report projects that about 1 million square feet of retail space will be needed in the city’s Sphere of Influence by 2030 yet only 1.3 million square feet has been planned. Bock also pointed out that when the city annexes the property there are development fees agreed upon between the county and city that will “make the city whole” in terms of burdening services.

Visalia Chamber of Commerce CEO Gail Zurek said Tulare County and Visalia would be wise to have something more inviting than the Goshen interchange as the primary entry point from Highway 99.

“I would love for this to be in Visalia, but the reality is people on the 99 won’t see it,” Zurek said. “This is very positive, not only for Visalia but our entire region.”

She shared the story of she and her husband driving up Highway 99 from Southern California and having a somewhat unflattering view of the area. “It wasn’t until I got off the highway that I saw this beautiful community. We have an amazing community with amazing people, and this is a chance for us to have something to be proud of,” Zurek said.

Commissioner Bill Whitlach noted that retail studies show there are about 800,000 people who shop in Tulare County, far more than the overall population of 450,000. “This project is probably dead center for the people who shop here from Kern, Kings, Tulare and Fresno Counties,” Whitlach said.

Project planner and developer Stephen Peck said the same can be said for Valley Children’s Medical Group, which will operate a clinic to serve people from Delano, Hanford, Tulare, Visalia, and Porterville. The current Specialty Care Center clinic in located at 220 N. Akers, Suite A in Visalia, is one of five specialty care centers operated by Valley Children’s with the others located in Bakersfield, Modesto, Merced and Fresno. Peck said Valley Children’s chose the location on Highway 99 because it is strategically located to meet the needs of both Tulare County and southern Kings County and centered between two larger centers in Modesto and Bakersfield. Valley Children’s Hospital and its outpatient clinics saw 17,853 patients from Tulare County for a total of nearly 45,000 patient visits, a 13% increase over 2016. Once completed, it is estimated that the Specialty Care Center in Visalia will see up to 30,0000 South Valley patients each year over the next decade as the region continues to grow.

In addition to having a high-end children’s clinic, Commissioner John Elliott liked the charging stations and described the project as a “high tech portal into Tulare County.” He said the charging stations would get people traveling Highway 99 to stop in Tulare County at the visitor center where they could recharge their cars, eat, shop and find more information about the rest of the county that doesn’t touch Highway 99.

“It really is the future of where we are going,” Elliott said.

Last month, the commerce center received a determination that the proposed buildings and structures are compatible with FAA regulations regarding safe air navigation.

The FAA determined that the project’s buildings or structures “…would not exceed obstruction standards and would not be a hazard to air navigation.” The report also stated that no special markings or lighting are necessary, explained project planner and developer Stephen Peck.

“We’ve gone to great pains with this project to ensure that it is fully consistent with all of FAA’s optional and mandatory regulations, and is fully consistent with the County’s airport land use compatibility regulations,” Peck said. “We are very pleased with this finding since it validates our attention to these details.”

Mario Cifuentez, deputy city manager for the City of Visalia, noted that the Visalia Airport Administration has no specific concerns in terms of airport impacts from the development, but “given the location of the project in relation to the airport, a determination and the findings of the FAA are required and welcome.”

Whitlach kicked off a series of eight motions needed to approve the project. All eight were passed unanimously. The commission also approved the plans when it convened as the Airport Land Use Commission. The project will now go before the Tulare County Board of Supervisors at its Dec. 11 meeting.

For information on Sequoia Gateway Commerce Center, contact Stephen Peck, steve@peckplanning.com or call 559-731-5778.

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