Visalia sewer clogs growth in Goshen

(Rigo Moran)

Visalia says it is out of sewer capacity for proposed 300-home development in neighboring community while Tulare County contends there is a dire need for that housing

GOSHEN – Tulare County’s largest city is claiming it’s out of sewer capacity, backing up at least one project which could provide significant relief to the local housing shortage.

Visalia-based homebuilder San Joaquin Valley Homes is now uncertain on how soon it can deliver more than 300 homes in Goshen after the city of Visalia said it did not have enough sewer capacity to serve that many homes.

San Joaquin Valley Homes (SJVH) was planning to develop a 303-unit subdivision between Avenue 304, and Avenue 306 west of Road 64 in the unincorporated community of Goshen. The project’s mix of affordable housing would have provided 20% of the projected housing need for Goshen and 4% of Tulare County’s housing need by 2040, according to the Regional Housing Needs Assessment required by the state.

As the home builder was preparing to go before the Tulare County Planning Commission for project approval, the city of Visalia told the Goshen Community Services District (CSD) to deny the project a “will serve” letter that promised sewer capacity in Visalia’s system.

“(C)apacity parameters … are already near or at current state mandated reserve thresholds, especially when accounting for capacity committed to city approved and planned development,” the city’s letter to the CSD stated.

“We were surprised by the letter,“ Tulare County Economic Development chief Mike Washam said. He added that Goshen has been slated for residential development since the county updated the Community Plan for Goshen in 2015 and the community is central to the county’s General Plan to address the overall housing shortage due to its proximity to residential infrastructure on the edge of Visalia.

Visalia City Council member Steve Nelsen said they too were “surprised” about the large subdivision, adding that the only notice the city received was an agenda item of a Tulare County Planning Commission meeting.

“Nobody let us know,” Nelsen said.

Nelsen said the city has grown and developed rapidly in recent years. A major part of that growth has been the industrial park, where large-scale operations generate large amounts of solid waste that plug up the pipes.

In recent weeks, Visalia staff has requested urgent funding to clean, inspect and repair each of the eight, 62-foot digesters at the city’s water recycling facility after discovering a leak that made one of the digesters inoperable. The big issue is how to handle solids from upstream processes typically consisting of primary sludge, scum, fats, oils and grease from commercial and industrial uses. A staff report says digester sludge has also seen a steady increase of disposable wipes and other non-disposable products, indicating more residential uses. The wipes and plastic clump together with organic debris, forming large rag-balls within the digesters, clogging pumps, valves and pipes.

Inspections found the leak, prompting staff to call for an inspection of all the digesters but not until the first digester is repaired – a six-month process, according to a report in May.

“We used to think we had plenty of sewer capacity,” Nelsen said.

Washam said more housing could potentially dilute the solids and help get the system flowing because residential waste is primarily more water than solids. More importantly, the county contends that finding a way to provide needed housing now is critical, while the capacity of the city’s waste water system won’t be reached for years if it truly takes into account “capacity committed to city approved and planned development,” as stated in its letter to Goshen CSD. Washam supported this by making multiple offers for the county and city to work together to find a solution.

“No one is suggesting this shouldn’t be a shared cost,” Washam said. “But in Goshen, the county has a housing opportunity because there is infrastructure and we are limited on where we can build.”

Flushing Out Facts

While Goshen CSD operates its own sewer system, it has purchased capacity from Visalia’s wastewater treatment plant since 1995. The CSD has purchased an average of 360,000 gallons of wastewater, 1,180 pounds of biological oxygen demand (BOD) and 950 pounds of solids per day since 2007. The CSD requested additional capacity in April in anticipation of the large subdivision of homes, but Visalia denied the proposed amendment to their agreement.

“The city is not in a position to accept your proposed Amendment No. 6 because the city has determined that there is no capacity available to accept additional wastewater discharge from Goshen CSD,” public works director Nick Bartsch wrote in a May 16 letter.

The letter goes on to state the city will not have more details for at least six months “until the study is complete, and plans for addressing the current constraints are arrived at, the city will not be in a position to accept any increase in contracted capacities.”

Bartsch stated the city was caught off guard by the CSD’s request to increase its capacity by between 48% and 56%. He said Visalia had no reason to believe such large increases were coming even though their agreement obligates the District to “make a good faith effort to notify the city of any potential increases … that would significantly affect the quantity and/or quality of the District’s discharge to the City system as soon as such potential impacts are made known to the District.”

“This does not appear to have occurred in this case,” Bartsch said. “We encourage you to make this a regular practice so we can assist you in serving your customers.”

Manuel Fleming, who has managed the CSD for the last 20 years, said when he asked the city what he should do about the issue, he was instructed to tell SJV Homes he could not connect them to Visalia’s waste water treatment system because Goshen had less than 10% of its average capacity remaining. Fleming relayed that information to the Tulare County Resource Management Agency (RMA), which decided to move forward with the project.

“We told them about the issue but they didn’t seem to be concerned,” Fleming said.

There was little concern expressed at the June 28 Tulare County Planning Commission meeting, where commissioners voted unanimously to approve the 303-home subdivision.

Aaron Bock, assistant director of Tulare County’s RMA, called the city’s reasoning “very speculative” in terms of addressing the very specific process outlined by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). He said the city continues to state it may not have enough capacity but has not quantified how much capacity remains. Bock noted the city has not brought up any capacity issues in Goshen projects prior to the SJVH subdivision.

“In CEQA, we deal with facts, not speculation,” Bock said.

Bock also took exception to the city’s claims they were not aware of the project sooner. He said the city commented on the Goshen Community Plan update in 2015 and only raised concerns about industrial development in the town but none in terms of residential growth.

“That would have been the time to bring this up,” Bock said.

Commissioner Wayne Millies said he had a conversation with Assistant City Manager Nick Mascia more than a year ago confirming the city could handle a 300-plus unit housing development. The commissioner also noted the city had already approved sewer capacity for the Sequoia Gateway Project, the commercial center at Caldwell Avenue and Highway 99, which included Great Wolf Lodge and its 700-room hotel and indoor water park. Great Wolf confirmed in March they were not moving forward with the Visalia site, leaving that county capacity unused.

Mascia could not be reached for comment and The Sun-Gazette was unable to schedule an interview with any staff members from the city of Visalia.

“Their letter really surprised me,” Commissioner Bill Whitlatch said before he seconded the motion to approve the project. The commission voted 6-0 to adopt a Mitigated Negative Declaration for the project’s environmental impact and approve a tentative subdivision map for the 53-acre subdivision, including a park and drainage pond.

“I see this as affordable housing for working folks,” Whitlatch said.

Pushing Forward

Despite the city’s denial to provide sewer capacity, SJV Homes said they will move forward with the subdivision in Goshen. Jim Robinson, principal and co-founder of SJV Homes, said his company is prepared to install a package treatment plant, a pre-manufactured facility used to treat wastewater in small communities or on individual properties, in order to move the project forward.

The city said there were not enough details on the package treatment plant to make it a viable alternative to using the sewer system in Goshen or Visalia. In its response to the county project, the city of Visalia said it opposed the development because it did not adequately address where waste water will be treated without using the city’s system.

“The City of Visalia has concerns that, unless the project is appropriately planned, there is a chance that a major residential project will be allowed to be constructed without clear conditions for resolving the sewer needs of the project prior to construction,” Visalia Community Development director Paul Bernal in the city’s response to the county project.

Robinson said SJVH plans on closing their first home of the subdivision in 14-15 months, with or without the Visalia’s sewer system.

“If the city won’t step up to the plate, we are willing to do so,” Robinson told the commissioners.

Other key housing projects in Goshen were approved and provided “will serve” letters prior to the CSD’s need for additional capacity. Fleming said Self-Help Enterprise’s second and final phase of its Sequoia Commons affordable rental community is nearly complete. Located at 31161 Florence Ave. in Goshen, the project will provide 60 affordable homes of one, two, and three-bedroom units, each complete with an energy-efficient dishwasher, gas stove, refrigerator, and washer and dryer hookups. Residents will share project amenities including a basketball half court, open space, playground area, and a 3,072 square foot community center with kitchen and computer lab.

That housing project is also connected to Neighborhood Village, a supportive housing project by Salt + Light to offer unsheltered residents a place to live in dignity. The Village will provide fully furnished 11 by 30-foot modular homes, primarily one bedroom, for individuals considered chronically homeless, meaning they have been experiencing homelessness for more than six consecutive months. Amenities include wrap-around mental and physical health services, coordination of benefits and case management, wellness and financial literacy classes, as well as alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous meetings. There will also be job training and workforce development, social enterprise and dignified income opportunities as well as a coffee shop and marketplace. The 6.5-acre project is the first of its kind in California.

“They are obliging to move slowly on the project to give us more time to prepare,” Fleming said.

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