Council OKs revising historical preservation ordinance

Ben Irwin

Demise of the Odell-Mor building prompts council and Historical Preservation Advisory committee to revise ordinance and save other historical buildings from the “chopping block”

VISALIA – The demise of the historic Odell-Mor building, believed to have been the city’s first multi-family housing development, has prompted swift movement from the Visalia City Council, who directed the Historical Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) at the March 15 meeting to draft a new historic preservation ordinance.

HPAC said the ordinance as it stands lacked the teeth to save the Odell-Mor bungalow at 209 N. Encina St. Councilmember Greg Collins suggested providing incentives like federal tax waivers through the Mills Act—a state incentive program managed by local governments that grants tax abatements to owners of historic property—and in-lieu parking waivers, which allow property owners to have less parking spaces per square foot than municipal code requires, to encourage owners to preserve historic properties.

HPAC member Walter Deissler said most of the buildings on the historical register are on the chopping block without any real protection.

“We did look at in-lieu parking, but it didn’t make a difference to the owner [of the Odell-Mor building,]” Deissler said. “We welcome our work with the council to come up with a draft ordinance to present to you.”

Cristobal Carrillo, an associate planner with the city of Visalia and the staff representative for HPAC, said because of its status on the historical register the Odell-Mor bungalow at 209 N Encina St. was not subject to review when proposed for demolition last August.

“The current ordinance only allows the committee to deny a demolition request if the building in question is on the local register and contains an ‘exceptional’ classification,” Carrillo said. “Some of the buildings in the city that have ‘exceptional’ classifications are the Fox Theatre, The Darling Hotel, the Bank of the Sierra building—these are significant structures in the city.”

According to Carrillo, 34 of the 368 buildings on the local historical register are currently classified as exceptional. The rest of Visalia’s historical structures and sites in the “focus” category—good to excellent quality that have significant value—and “background” category—may not be historically significant or unique and of themselves, but contribute positively as a group to the “visual fabric” of Visalia—are relatively unprotected from demolition under the current ordinance.

The 1914 Odell-Mor building has a “background” classification on the local register and sits outside the historical district. Under the current ordinance the only option HPAC had was to slap a six month moratorium on the August demolition request, time that’s come and gone.

At the Feb. 16 meeting, Vice Mayor Phil Cox said code enforcement informed him there is nothing you can do when a property owner comes in to do work with no permits after hours such as the situation that unfolded with the Odell-Mor building, which made it difficult for the city and HPAC to keep an eye on the building.

Having previously suffered from a lack of participation, and now that six of seven seats are filled, HPAC has decided to conduct a full comprehensive review of the existing local register to look for any inaccurate classifications. The last historical register review was made in 2013. Chair of HPAC Patricia Kane said the Odell-Mor’s fate could be the same for many of Visalia’s historical buildings if adjustments aren’t made.

“Some areas we need to add properties that weren’t reviewed or have aged enough to be significant,” Kane said, “we have a process to do that. It’s important if we are going to maintain that we actually take care of these properties.”

Kane said she expects the number of structures and sites in the historical register to increase significantly upon review.

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