Visalia unbars home development after year-long pause

(Rigo Moran)

Ag mitigation lawsuit halts housing development in Visalia, city seals the red tape to ensure it can resume

VISALIA – As far as last year goes, residential and commercial development proved productive in Visalia; this year, current numbers are indicative of a drop, at least in terms of housing.

Last year, Visalia saw 560 new permits for single family lots and 38 new commercial permits. It was the city’s fifth year in a row to exceed 500 new single family housing units and fourth year to have over one million square feet of commercial permits issued, which according to economic development manager Devon Jones, was mainly due to the growth of the industrial park.

“Additionally, there were 691 new multifamily units permitted for the year, which is more than the last nine years combined,” Jones said.

This year development is well off track for city permits. While commercial permits have only dipped slightly from 15 permits to 10 through April, single family housing permits have dropped by 73% in the last year from 245 to just 66 during that same period and multi-family housing has dropped from 17 to only one.

“There is still a considerable amount of development activity already underway from the past year,” Jones said. “We will see many of those projects come to fruition over the next year.”

Although there are a few indicators on why this decrease has been had, like higher interest rates causing some issues in affordability, Visalia Vice Mayor Brett Taylor said the biggest contributing factor to this situation was the lawsuit that put the city’s Tier 2 development on hold for the better part of a year.

“I think that’s the primary focus of why our permits and residential housing has been so low for this year,” Taylor said. “Builders were just waiting for that to open up.”

As reported in the The Sun Gazette on July 21, 2022, the city was overruled in its decision to forego charging ag land mitigation fees from developers who want to bring farmland into the city for urban development. Under the city’s initial 2030 General Plan, a document accounting for 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.

Visalia’s 2030 General Plan was adopted in 2014 and featured a three-tiered system that encouraged development in its first tier, Tier 1, the land closest to the city’s center. After that, the plan allowed for subdivisions in Tier 2 and 3 to promote development from within the city and avoid urban sprawl, a form of uncontrolled growth in urban areas that sometimes extends miles outside of urban limits.

The ruling put a pause on all development within Tiers 2 and 3. In September 2021, council unanimously approved a $150,000 contract with Provost & Pritchard, an engineering and planning services company with an office in Visalia. The company was brought on to outline parameters for an ag mitigation program (AMP) after its removal from the city’s amended general plan for development in Tiers 2 and 3, and to draft an Agricultural Preservation Ordinance (APO) for the city to implement, as part of the judge’s ruling.

At its latest meeting on May 15, Visalia City Council had its second reading and adoption of its farmland mitigation policy. According to Taylor, the policy is set to go into effect 30 days after that point and the city should see quite a few builders moving forward with their projects in Tier 2.

“You’re looking at six different builders that are working on Tier 2 projects that number close to 1,500 to 1,600 homes,” Taylor said.

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