County supervisors stall Visalia annexations

installation of a sewage plastic pipe during the construction of a house.(edojob)

Three developments totaling 600 homes are in limbo after two supervisors voted against annexing them into Visalia over concerns of the city’s sewer capacity

VISALIA – Another 600 homes have been delayed in Visalia over a dispute between city and county officials over sewer capacity.

City of Visalia officials said they were blindsided a few weeks ago when two county representatives serving on a public board, which approves annexations, blocked three projects proposed to be annexed into the city limits. Annexations are typically considered routine approvals because they have already gone through environmental and planning processes by cities before going to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for approval.

“Staff at LAFCO supported the annexations, but when I made the motion to approve, it died for lack of a second,” LAFCO board member and Visalia City Councilmember Liz Winn said. “We were very disappointed.”

If a city wants to expand its boundaries, they must get approval for their LAFCO board – an independent regulatory commission created by the California Legislature to control the boundaries of cities and most special districts. The five-member commission typically meets monthly to hear annexation requests by Tulare County cities and special districts.

The LAFCO board is made up of five members, Wynn for the city of Visalia, Supervisors Dennis Townsend and Pete Vander Poel for the county, councilmember Maribel Reynosa for the city of Dinuba, and a public member, Richard Feder, who was absent from the meeting.

There were four annexations into the city of Visalia on the agenda at LAFCO’s Oct. 4 meeting but only one was approved despite all being recommended for approval by LAFCO staff. Wynn said a development of 34 homes on Crenshaw Street was approved because it was a county island, unincorporated land surrounded by city boundaries. The other three, totaling 609 homes, were on the outskirts of town and were denied by county Supervisors Dennis Townsend and Pete Vander Poel after the city blocked a development of 303 homes in Goshen earlier this year.

“It’s very unusual for the supervisors to go against the staff’s recommendations on this thing,” Wynn said. “It was definitely a political play.”

The city cited concerns of capacity for the community northeast of town, which contracts for additional sewer capacity with Visalia. City officials said they were caught off guard when Goshen’s Community Service District, which provides water and sewer for Goshen, requested a nearly 50% increase in the capacity it needed from Visalia’s wastewater treatment plant.

“We’re not going to shortchange our general plan, which we have capacity for, because you’re growing out of control,” Wynn said in an interview last week.

Vander Poel said Visalia is insisting new development cannot move forward around Goshen until the city completes a study of their sewer capacity. Growth in Goshen has accelerated in the past few years to include a number of new subdivisions, new highway commercial projects and new industrial developments. In a letter to the County earlier this year, the City surprised County officials announcing the sewer capacity study, and the need to put new Goshen connections on hold until the study is completed.

“If it’s OK for Visalia to hook-up new development, why not others?,” Vander Poel asked. He added that the annexation delay for Visalia projects is temporary and the expected capacity study is nearing completion, likely in a matter of weeks. “Why does Visalia want to jump the gun allowing new development outside their boundaries until this study is done?”

Stewing Problem

Visalia Public Works Director Nick Bartsch said the city’s system is operating in compliance with state standards and is not in danger of a massive back up. Visalia’s wastewater treatment can process up to 22 million gallons of water per day and is currently processing around 13.5 million gallons per day. The real issue, Bartsch estimated, is that water conservation measures, such as low flow water fixtures combined with rapid growth, have left the wastewater flow with less water consistency, causing the processing system to potentially run less efficiently over time.

“The system was designed to function based off of a soup makeup, and instead, we’re seeing a stew come through,” Bartsch said. “So, it obviously is a lot thicker and has more solids in it. It’s kind of an ugly graphic, if you envision that, but the concept is there.”

The county has questioned how the city was going to be able accommodate a project like Great Wolf Lodge, with its 700 hotel rooms and indoor water park, and not 300 homes in Goshen, which would use far less capacity. Bartsch explained that Great Wolf was part of the Sequoia Gateway commercial center off Caldwell Avenue and Highway 198, which lies within the city’s sphere of influence, meaning it is an unincorporated area that is not part of another district.

The Goshen development falls within a community service district, a special district outside of the city’s political influence, and – more importantly – its development and planning processes.

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 per day since 2007. In April, the CSD requested a 56% increase in capacity to 563,000 gallons of wastewater per day in anticipation of the large subdivision of homes, but Visalia denied the proposed amendment to their agreement.

“We can accommodate the growth that we have planned, but this was not something that was conveyed to us nor anticipated,” Bartsch said. “So, we said we needed to wait until we completed our study before we could commit to any additional increase in capacity on their side.”

Bartsch said the consultant the city hired this summer should be presenting their findings to the city in November. Once the city has had time to digest the information, they will release it to the public sometime after that.

“The study is refining and trying to finalize whatever remaining capacity is (to process solids),” Bartsch said. “It’s easy to measure flow, but when it comes to the (solids), it’s a little bit more complicated.”

The city is also working on a long-term study to decide if, and when, the current wastewater treatment plant needs to be expanded. Cities are required by the state to expand their treatment plants once they reach 80% capacity or face a moratorium on “will serve” letters to developers wanting to build in their city.

The city’s sewer system is currently governed by a 2008 master plan, typically a 20 year plan, which the city was going to need to revisit within the next five years. Bartsch said the Goshen project just happened to come just before the city was about to begin that process and the jump in capacity was not part of the existing plan.

“It’s not ‘if’ we’re going to put in the Goshen project, it’s just a matter of when, and when we will make sure that we have capacity to handle the issue,” Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian said. “There’s no reason to stall these because we know we already have capacity, they hit all their mitigating factors.”

Finding Relief

Seven more annexations into the city of Visalia have been on hold for several years while the city sorted out how to address a lawsuit over farmland conversion mitigation with the Sierra Club. That issue was settled months ago but builders with residential development projects totaling 5,000 homes will now have to wait longer still to break ground. That includes the 3,200 residential unit Carlton Acres project attached to the proposed new Costco on the corner of Shirk Road and Riggin Avenue.

Visalia officials said that the city’s General Plan has already taken into consideration the expected annexation projects which have been in the works for a long time.

“This is a Visalia taxpayer-funded sewer system, and we know we have the capacity for our own projects,” Wynn said.

Vander Poel sought to de-escalate the standoff, noting the most recent no vote did not mean the County will oppose the projects for a long time.

“We need to have better communication,” the supervisor said.

Poochigian agreed that both the county and city leadership need to talk.

“For now, new development is on hold in Visalia,” the mayor complained, “even though we have the sewer capacity.”

The sludge fest between the city and county began in May when Visalia sent a letter to the Goshen Community Services District suggesting new development projects in Goshen be put on hold while the City waits for the short-term study to determine how much capacity for solids it can handle now.

Visalia-based San Joaquin Valley Homes wanted to build a 303-home subdivision in Goshen west of Highway 99. The builder, via the Goshen Community Services District, needed approval from the city of Visalia for additional sewer capacity.

Visalia claimed it needed the County to communicate what projects are in the wings so it can see how much new capacity will need to be built into the city’s system. Visalia City Councilmember Steve Nelsen went so far as to say the city was “surprised” about the big, proposed subdivision project, adding that no notice was offered before they saw an agenda item.

“Nobody let us know that the project was on deck,” Nelsen said earlier this year. “We need to make sure we have capacity for growth in Visalia first.”

Tulare County economic development chief Mike Washam countered that his staff was surprised by the letter, noting that Goshen has been slated for residential development since the county updated its 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. He even offered to meet with city officials to potentially “contribute to the solution.”

That finally happened on Oct. 19, when Poochigian and Vice Mayor Brett Taylor sat down with Townsend and Vander Poel at a meeting organized by the Building Industry Association of Tulare/Kings Counties, Inc., a non-profit organization representing residential builders, developers and subcontractors.

“Obviously, we want Goshen projects, they help Visalia,” Poochigian said. “That’s a lot of workforce housing that goes right next to the industrial park out there. It’s all positive stuff. We just want to make sure that we have capacity for services.”

Vander Poel said the meeting was “effective” and provided “clarity” on the issue. He said there may be a resolution on the issue before the board of supervisors in the next few weeks.

For now, nothing is moving forward until the standoff is resolved.

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