Residents say duplexes are second loss in battle for their neighborhood

Planning Commission approves duplexes among single family homes despite objections from neighbors who have seen major changes with commercial spaces and mental health centers near their homes

VISALIA – Residents of a quaint neighborhood tucked away off Lovers Lane have seen a lot of changes to their eastern Visalia area.

East Gate Manor was built in 1977 and, until the last 10 to 15 years, was a single-family residential area with a few dirt lots creating a buffer between them and the four-lane expressway of Lovers Lane. Those frontage lots eventually were converted to commercial office space and included tenants like Mineral King Produce, Sequoia Orthopedic & Spine, and formerly the Tulare and Kings County Builders Exchange. In 2016, the latter was purchased by Tulare County and repurposed as the Visalia Wellness & Recovery Center, which helps mental health patients with long-term stability transition back into a life that includes the same aspirations as most citizens—a home, a job, a healthy lifestyle and activities with friends and family. Residents opposed the center over fears it would increase homelessness due to its location near another county mental health facility but lost their battle when the facility officially opened in 2018.

Last week, East Gate Manor residents lost another attempt to block what they considered to be a residential development “out of character” with the neighborhood. On Sept. 13, the Visalia Planning Commission unanimously approved a 3,792-square foot duplex at the corner of Lovers Lane and Paradise Avenue at the southwestern edge of the subdivision. Both units are 1,100 square feet for three bedrooms, two bathrooms, dining room, kitchen, patio, porch and two-car garage. A representative of the applicant, Fontana Ranches, said the duplexes will be rented out for about $1,500 per month and the ADU unit is for his son.

Josh Dan, associate planner for the city, explained duplexes are allowed on corner lots of land zoned for single-family residential but must be conditionally approved, which is why it went before the planning commission, a change which took effect in the early 1990s.

East Gate Manor resident Sandra Tomlinson said she and her neighbors were “strongly opposed” to the project because it looked more like a plan for an apartment complex than a duplex. She pointed out the site plan had seven parking spaces, in addition to the garages, and included another housing unit detached from the duplexes.

“That is completely out of character to the neighborhood,” she said. “I talked to a bunch of people … not a single person was in favor of this.”

Dan said the site plan did includes a future accessory dwelling unit, which would mean there are three units on the single family zoned site. The city defines accessory dwelling units (ADUs) as “an additional dwelling unit having separate kitchen, sleeping, and sanitation facilities contructed or adopted within, onto, or detached from a single family dwelling on a residential lot in the A or R-1 zones.” As of Jan. 1, 2020 they can be stick built or pre-manufactured, such as mobile homes, and can also be conversions of an attic, basement, garage or another portion of a single family dwelling.

Commissioner Mary Beatie asked if the duplexes could be reoriented to face in different directions, one on Paradise and the other on Lovers Lane, and then hide the ADU behind the duplexes to make it look more like the rest of the neighborhood.

“Lovers Lane, which is a four lane divided arterial, we would never give anyone access to lovers lane, nor would we allow just a unit to face on to it,” City Planner Paul Bernal said.

Another man shared he looked up the property on Zillow, a real estate app, which stated the project was a “triplex” and had already been “site plan approved” prior to the start of the meeting. He said property values in his neighborhood have been steadily going up, but he expects approval of the project will weigh them back down.

“So please make a good decision on this and don’t lower our property values,” he said. “Don’t ruin our community.”

Commission Adam Peck said the city does not have any authority to impose conditions on the ADU and said a duplex might be the only use suited for the lot, since it has been vacant for more than 40 years because nobody wants to buy a home that backs up to a busy street like Lovers Lane.

“It’s not a terribly efficient use of the space but I think a more efficient use of the space would be more concerning to the neighbors via a higher density the that would come along with that,” Peck said.

Peck motioned to approve the conditional use permit allowing the duplexes on the lot. Commissioner Marvin Hansen seconded the motion and the vote was 4-0, as Commissioner Chris Gomez was absent.

“I understand it’s hard to see the character of neighborhood and it is a beautiful neighborhood,” Peck said. “There were concerns about some of the other commercial developments that have happened over the last decade and a half which I’m sure have been okay and been problematic in some ways.”

Any appeal of the commission’s decision must be followed with the city within 10 days of the decision. Appeal forms can be found on the city’s website and must be provided in writing to City Clerk, 220 N. Santa Fe St., Visalia, CA.

Dan said ADUs can be as large as half the size of the main house on the property and as small as a tiny home, as long as they meet basic living requirements and meet all of the health and safety requirements of a primary home.

The trend of seeing a rash of ADUs on single family lots is unlikely to hit the Valley any time soon. Dan said the city has only seen a handful, and most of them were to make accommodations to care for elderly parents or provide rent relief for adult children.

Even transplants from Southern California and the Bay Area, who are used to seeing multi-level condos and duplexes in traditional single family neighborhoods, are more likely fleeing that landscape rather than trying to recreate it.

“People are still coming here because it is an affordable place to live,” Dan said.

That may change in the future after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last Thursday allowing up to four housing units on a one single-family lot throughout the state, regardless of local laws and ordinances against it. Senate Bill 9, would allow two homes on any single-family lot without a conditional approval, and both could be duplexes, two houses with attached units, or a combination of both with a cap of four total housing units. The bill’s author, State Sen. Toni Atkins (D-X) and Gov. Newsom argued the bill would address the rising cost of housing in California and also increase access to homeownership by offering a greater variety of housing in every neighborhood in every city.

“You still have to meet all of the building standards for all of those units, so I don’t think many people here will take advantage of it,” Dan said. “It makes sense if you have an extremely valuable piece of property but it will likely cost you more than it’s worth locally.”

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