Visalia City Council to decide fate of car lot on Mooney Boulevard

Visalia Planning Commission denies CarMax’s permit for 5-acre lot; project will now come before the Visalia City Council on Aug. 17

@TheSunGazette

VISALIA – The nation’s largest used car retailer wants to build a car lot on Mooney Boulevard,, something the city hasn’t allowed for decades, so they will have to get permission from the Visalia City Council to get it.

On July 13, the Visalia Planning Commission announced that CarMax’s request to build a five-acre car lot at the southwest corner of Mooney and Visalia Parkway has been set for a public hearing before the Visalia City Council on Aug. 17.

The Visalia Planning Commission denied the company’s request for a zoning text amendment and conditional use permit to allow a car lot on Mooney Boulevard, which is zoned for regional commercial. Cristobal Carrillo, associate planner for the city, said the city has traditionally forced car dealers to locate along Ben Maddox and the Auto Center on Plaza Drive to maintain the retail feel of Mooney Boulevard but there was never any “definitive action” that resulted in a policy prohibiting car dealerships from locating in the regional commercial zone. Carrillo’s staff report also noted there are many auto-related businesses already operating in the zoning on Mooney Boulevard including auto repair, car washes, tire sales and service, and auto part sales.

“The addition of used auto sales and service, subject to the development velopment standards as discussed below, will not be significantly different from the uses already allowed in the C-R Zone,” the staff report stated. “CarMax has the ability to act as an additional regional retail anchor in the C-R zone, at a time when retail businesses are leaving the retail market.”

Steve Brandt, representing CarMax, said the company is a regional draw for car buyers because CarMax already knows Visalia residents are doing business with their Fresno office.

“We pull in customers from other cities. That’s regional retail,” Brandt said. “That’s what we’re talking about in Visalia. You can shop online, find a car in Michigan and they will bring it to Visalia for you to buy it.”

Ed Dena, owner of Ed Dena’s Used Super Store in Visalia, said he would be the most affected by CarMax coming into town, but every car dealer, new and used, would be affected if CarMax were allowed to have a prime spot on Mooney while the rest have been forced to locate elsewhere in the community.

“Everyone would give up their store to have that store,” Dena said. “We are giving a used car dealer the best location in all of Visalia. If you are going to give it to someone, give it to Don Groppetti. But that location is off limits. It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

Commissioner Chris Gomez asked Dena if he would be in favor of the project if it opened the doors to other car lots like his own on Mooney. Dena said the city would be changing the rules for an outside car dealer that won’t support the community like the locally owned car dealerships on Ben Maddox and Plaza Drive.

“They don’t support youth football and other sports just like every other big box store,” Dena said. “We are part of this community and invest in this community, and have for years.”

Commissioner Marvin Hansen asked CarMax what happened to local used car retailers after CarMax moved into other markets.

John Thatcher, Centerpoint Integrated Solutions, a consultant for CarMax, said he didn’t have any data to answer that question but did say that CarMax caters to a specific type of customer that appreciates the retail experience they provide. He said what he did know is that CarMax already has customers in Visalia who are shopping in other counties. Keeping those people buying cars in Visalia represents annual revenues of about $30 million. He also said CarMax customers are not your typical used car buyers. They are looking for a hassle free, retail experience similar to the company’s customer service roots at Circuit City rather than a negotiation between a salesperson and a buyer who both enjoys to haggle.

“CarMax has their customers and other people that appreciate the haggle and getting a deal are not their customers to begin with,” Thatcher said.

Dena rejected the idea his dealership gave customers a “bad experience” and accused CarMax of padding profit margins by selling more expensive cars. Dena’s wife, Ashley, said Ed Dena’s in Visalia is a member of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, donate to Court Appointed Special Advocates in Tulare County and already draw in buyers from outside of the city of Visalia.

“The only thing this will do is split up the market share,” Ashley Dena said. “People won’t be buying more cars, just buying less from the other dealers.”

Hansen made the motion to deny the zoning amendment and conditional use permit to “Keep the playing field even and make sure CarMax is playing by the same rules.” Commissioners Bret Taylor and Gomez both said they liked the shopping experience at CarMax but neither would support the project out of respect for the existing car dealerships who were never given a chance to have a location on Mooney. Gomez said he remembers when auto dealers were disappearing from town and now the industry seems to be more healthy.

“We would be making a change that would affect a lot of large businesses in our community,” Gomez said. “We don’t make policy [as planning commissioners]. I think maybe this change to commercial regional, I think that’s a decision the city council would have to make.”

The motion passed 3-2, with Taylor and Gomez voting in favor of the project to create a split vote that would allow CarMax to avoid paying a fee to appeal the decision to the city council.

– This article was updated at 11:17 a.m. PST on July 23, 2020.

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