City denies Visalia cemetery’s expansion plan

Visalia Public Cemetery goes back to the drawing board after a 3-2 vote from Visalia City Council to not change land use and zoning designations for expansion purposes

VISALIA – May day held a little more weight in Visalia this year as individuals fought to save an area of working class homes from the Visalia Public Cemetery expansion.

On May 1, constituents filled the Visalia City Council chambers, spilling into the overflow room, to share their opinions on the planned expansion of the Visalia Public Cemetery. The cemetery district has been following a masterplan from nearly twenty years ago, in which they have been purchasing homes surrounding the cemetery and, if need be, removing residents, demolishing the structure and preparing to use the space for additional burial plots.

The cemetery district now needed permission to change land use and zoning designations to further their expansion. However, community members brought a variety of arguments to council as to why they should vote against the change to the residential area surrounding the cemetery. In a three to two vote, council members voted to send the Visalia Public Cemetery’s request back to the planning commission for further evaluation to come back in four to six weeks.

“I’m just happy that people came out and voiced their concerns,” Emmanuel Soto, district four councilman said. “I encourage anybody and everybody to do that whenever they feel passionate about any particular item on our agenda or just in general.”

The Visalia Public Cemetery requested to change the general plan land use zoning designations for 16 parcels they have acquired since 2005. According to the staff report, the current availability of the cemetery is sufficient to serve the public for only another eight years. The expansion onto the property they proposed will greatly expand that area geographically allowing for the opportunity to offer services for a longer period of time.

In 2005, a master plan was put in place for the expansion of the cemetery. Since then the district has been working to purchase property surrounding the existing cemetery boundary. They have acquired 16 parcels of land that are within the masterplan boundary, and only when the homes come up for sale.

“Properties are purchased at fair market value and mechanisms such as eminent domain have never been employed to acquire properties,” the staff report states.

Of the 16 parcels, the district has demolished about half of them already. Fifteen of the properties were low density, or single family residential, together they add up to about 3.33 acres and the remaining plot of land was medium density, or multi family residential and accounts for .24 acres.

As for the remainder of the homes who have tenants residing in them, it is stated in the staff report that the demolition of those residential structures would occur “over a long period of time at staggered intervals so as to prevent the sudden loss of all 15 units.” Some council members and community members were concerned that there was not a solid time frame.

Housing Crisis

Despite the plan to stagger the eviction and demolition of the current homes that are owned by the cemetery and have residents, a large concern for many is the major housing crisis that is currently ongoing. Several individuals begged the question during public comment, where are these people supposed to go once evicted? Some residents have lived in these homes and in the area for several years, if they are to be evicted, where will they find homes with similar affordability?

Soto said even though this area is not considered low income housing, several of the residents who live in the area are working class individuals who would most likely not be able to afford housing elsewhere. The staff report explained that through the 2020-2023 Visalia Housing Element, which provides policies encouraging housing affordability and identifies sites for low income housing, none of the sites proposed by the cemetery are identified in the Housing Element’s list.

“While the proposal would represent a reduction in the housing stock of the area, existing regulations and policies do not prohibit its removal,” the staff report states.

However, Councilmember Soto, Steve Nelson and Liz Wynn agreed that there must be a better solution for expansion of the Visalia Public Cemetery rather than tearing down perfectly good homes. In response to the public comments, Nelson said “neighborhoods are about family” and that he has spoken with the cemetery district board about what should be happening now, not in 50 years.  He also said that as a council they are doing what they can for affordable housing, but in some instances their hands are tied.

“Now everybody in this audience has lashed out and said, ‘well the city of Visalia is not doing enough for affordable housing,’ if you have an argument on affordable housing, please do me a favor, because I’m tired of arguing. Go to Sacramento,” Nelson said. “Because every time they make a new regulation that adds a cost to a house, that no longer becomes an affordable house.”

As he believes in the community a neighborhood can bring, he does not understand why an entire neighborhood is being wiped out. Because he believes in community and homeownership, he said it is important to take another look at the situation.

“I can say there’s got to be a better way of achieving what’s best for the neighborhood, what’s best for the cemetery and what’s best for the city of Visalia,” Nelson said. “And I question if we’ve done that dialogue, we’ve done that investigation.”

Councilwoman Wynn said she made the motion because she too thinks there is a better alternative than eliminating perfectly good homes. She said she encourages the district to work with Self-Help Enterprises or the California Housing Authority. She also offered that the cemetery district may have the opportunity to resell some of the properties they have purchased throughout the years and possibly make their money back and then some.

“It’s a different time than it was in 2005,” Wynn said. “I think people have a voice, they are more empowered, we have translators here on a regular basis and I too, would not vote for [the zone change].”

Improper permitting?

Hollis Elliot Fernandez brought a point to the council that the cemetery district may not have been operating and demolishing houses properly. The cemetery has demolished a total of 15 houses and Fernandez said one of the houses does not have a demolition permit on file with the city of Visalia. She said there was an additional house that had clearly been demolished several years ago, but the demo permit was pulled the morning of the city council meeting on May 1.

She said it is concerning as a realtor because she knows the process which is necessary to demolish a building. Fernandez explained the need to get permission from the Valley Air Board, submit inspections and reports about asbestos and lead based paint.

“This raises some concerns to me, as a local realtor,” Fernandez said. “ If these permits weren’t pulled properly with the city before these homes were demoed, what else went on for that?”

Along with councilman Soto’s vote to send the cemetery back to the planning phases, he is having staff members investigate the cemetery district’s permitting process. He said they are a public entity, they should be doing things properly and it is important to make sure of that.

“They work for the public, so we want to make sure that they’re doing things the way they’re supposed to,” Soto said. “But at the end of the day, I’m hopeful that we can come up with a solution that’ll make everybody happy.”

Other Comments

Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) board trustee Randy Villegas was among those who spoke his mind to the council.

“As we deal with this affordable housing crisis, the lack of housing in general, the decision to overtake the zoning and eventually force people out of their homes does not sit well with me,” Villegas said. “Especially considering some of our residents here in the city have adopted a rather reluctant rather than enthusiastic approach for affordable housing here in the city.”

Villegas and the principal of Houston Elementary School Adrian Leal both touched on the effects this type of expansion could have on the school. Residents have the fear that the expansion will eventually head closer and closer to the elementary school and possibly take over the school.

In addition to VUSD trustee Villegas, over 20 individuals ranging from previous and current residents of the neighborhood, surrounding school administrators, concerned community members and county supervisor Eddie Valero spoke during public comment.

There are currently two other cemetery locations within Visalia, Elbow Creek and Lone Oak that were mentioned by both council members and those who made public comments. Though it was unknown how many available plots are at each location or even how big either of them are, the question was asked of why can’t the district utilize those spaces instead of expanding on the one in the middle of town. And if there is not any room at those locations, why not purchase a separate portion of land outside of town to expand the cemetery.

The rebuttal to these questions from the cemetery district is that costs would increase for those who wish to bury their loved ones. However, now that the district will have to take a second look into their masterplan, this is something that will have to be addressed.

Council Responses

Although vice mayor Brett Taylor voted against sending the cemetery back to the planning commision, he said he agreed with a lot of what the community had to say. He offered a solution of purchasing farmland rather than residential land by the acre and developing a new cemetery that way because of the cost. He encouraged the public to go to cemetery district meetings and voice their concerns. Taylor also said it is important to share their feelings with the county board of supervisors. He did support the plan to change the zoning because it is a plan that has been in place for several years.

“I don’t know how much the cemetery district has spent going through this plan,” Taylor said. “I’m not wanting to just rip out people’s plans from yesterday that they’ve been developing for decades, just because it doesn’t suit me today.”

Mayor Poochigian also voted for rezoning the properties. He agreed with the vice mayor and said the movement is already in place. He also encouraged the community to talk to the board of supervisors as well as the cemetery district board because that is where the discussion should be.

“It’s like that rock is already rolling down the hill, we could have stopped it easily at the top and the city of Visalia really has no jurisdiction here,” Poochigian said.

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