Visalia farmers market hits roadblock in permit pursuit

Downtown Visalia sign on Main Street - Photo by Rigo Moran

Downtown Visalia Certified Farmers Market recovers from brief suspension stemming from struggles to acquire a new permit to operate in the downtown area

VISALIA – Visalia’s downtown farmers market was temporarily stuck in limbo as its director pursued a new special event permit from the city; however, after some months of uncertainty on the permit’s status, the farmers market is now expected to reopen July 13.

Over the better part of this year so far, the Downtown Visalia Certified Farmers Market’s director April Lancaster was concerned over the state of the market’s special event permit from the city, which allows the market to operate in downtown Visalia without hitting any snags with city regulations.

Lancaster received confirmation that her new permit was approved on July 7, and the new permit is approved all the way through October. The farmers market will reopen on Thursday July 13, from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.

“The relief that comes with the resolution and re-issuance of our special events permit is indescribable,” Lancaster said. “We have been in triage mode for nearly six months facing uncertainty in our ability to continue (operations).”

The concern stemmed from a recent change to the permit’s approved timeline that happened earlier this year. While Lancaster applied for a 10-month special event permit from the city of Visalia in January, as she had done in previous years, she was surprised to find that the timeline had been shortened to less than half of the requested time.

“The city issued the permit at the beginning of March, but they said (they were) only going to process it until June 22,” Lancaster said.

According to Tracy Robertshaw, the neighborhood preservation manager for the city of Visalia, this change was made because the city is currently in the process of reconstructing the way its special event permits are issued.

“We’re looking at some changes to the ordinance, but we haven’t changed it yet,” Robertshaw said.

Robertshaw added that, until the permitting ordinance has been reviewed and a new time frame for the permitting issues has been established, the special event permits will be active for shorter timeframes, although these shortened timelines are currently uncertain. As of now, there is no confirmed estimate as to when the city would finish making these ordinance changes.

“We are eager to get back to our mission of supporting downtown business owners, providing access to healthy food buying alternatives, providing opportunities and education to new and underserved producers, and cultivating the tight-knit community that our downtown deserves,” Lancaster said.

How did we get here?

From Lancaster’s account, the situation with the market’s special event permit started when she first applied for the permit at the beginning of this year.

Soon after applying for the permit, she hit a clerical error with the permit that required it to be resubmitted, which Lancaster addressed. However, following the resubmission, Lancaster said there were issues with city’s code enforcement officers not enforcing the street closure required by the special event permit, and noted they were also removing the traffic cones meant to reserve the space for the farmers market.

After finding a resolution to the street closure through emailed conversations with city staff, Lancaster said she thought the market was in the clear; that is, until she received notice that there were further issues with the special event permit.

Lancaster explained that, when she received the permitting papers back from the city in March, that was when she noticed the change of the permit’s timeline. Although she initially applied for a timeline of March to December for 2023, she received a different timeline of March through June 22.

When June came, Lancaster went to the city with questions on the updated permit timeline and, according to email exchanges with city staff that Lancaster made public on her Facebook page, was told  the city was currently in the process of changing their requirements for special event permits – making it so the permits would only cover six-month increments at a time.

However, Lancaster said when she reapplied for another permit, she was informed shortly after through email that the permits would be done in monthly increments instead. To prepare accordingly for the months ahead, she submitted multiple applications for special event permits and reported that she was met with another roadblock in the process.

“I got a message back on June 15 from the city’s Special Event Committee chair (saying) that they’re going to choose to process the application that I submitted covering June 27 through August 31,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster added that she was told by the committee’s chair that any application she submitted that expanded the timeline into October was not going to be processed.

“She applied once, and then she submitted three more applications. I’m not sure why,” said Robertshaw, who is also the chair for the city’s Special Event Committee. “She just needed to submit the one.”

Another issue Lancaster noted was a petition requiring signatures from businesses in the area for a “good neighbor” petition, as part of her application for the special event permit. Although the petition was required for her permits in the past, she said now the city is insisting on a different format for the petition. For Lancaster, this means she must redo her petition with 36 signatures to obtain the permit, signatures she said she has already gotten once before.

Lancaster said with the brief suspension of the farmer’s market in the middle of the season, as well as other costs associated with trying to get the permitting handled with the city, the farmer’s market was losing funds quickly. She estimated that most of her vendors are losing out on $4,000 to $6,000 in sales every day they are closed.

Not only that, as a shop owner herself who operates in downtown Visalia, the shop owners and market vendors were also losing out on funds during the market’s brief suspension.

“I’ve built what I have from a farmers market,” Lancaster said. “This is how I feed my kids, and I want to help other people build things from nothing. And this is the lowest barrier to an entry-level business option.”

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