HANFORD – A special Hanford City Council meeting on Friday that covered controversial zoning changes proposed for downtown is generating criticism.

In interviews, downtown advocates interested in commenting on the controversial items raised questions about why the subject was scheduled for a special meeting on a Friday afternoon rather for a regular Tuesday night meeting.

Craig Johnson, owner of Salmon's Furniture Galleries, said if he had known about the meeting, he would have attended.

"I'd love to be there to put my 2 cents in," he said. "The way the agenda was written, it was planned that way, probably. I wish they would have had it [be] more open."

The controversial zoning proposal, which among other things would allow furniture stores like Salmon's to locate around Costco and on 12th Avenue rather than continue limiting them to downtown and some areas along 11th Avenue, has generated disagreement at several previous council meetings.

The discussions have pitted advocates of allowing retail businesses to locate in virtually any commercial zone of the city against a group who wants to maintain policies that direct certain kinds of development to the downtown area and away from Costco and the 12th Avenue business corridor.

The general plan update and zoning ordinance overhaul of which the controversial items are a part has been in the works for at least three years, according to City Manager Darrel Pyle.

Pyle said the controversial items got an airing at previous council meetings.

Pyle said the point of Friday's meeting was to familiarize new council members Sue Sorensen and Martin Devine with some of the issues.

Pyle said he feels like the public has had plenty of chance to weigh in previously on the subject proposed downtown zoning changes.

Emails letting the public know about Friday's meeting were sent out at 8:08 a.m. Thursday, which meets the legal requirement to give at least 24 hours notice.

For regular council meetings the first and third Tuesdays of each month, the public has to receive at least 72 hours advance notice.

The regular council meetings usually start at 7 p.m., with study sessions taking place no earlier than 5:30 p.m. in order to give residents a better chance of attending after getting off work.

The Friday meeting started at 8:30 a.m.

The discussion of proposed zoning changes in several controversial areas was listed as the second item on the agenda. The first item was "Leadership and Strategic Planning Workshop."

Main Street Hanford Executive Director Shelly Talbert, another outspoken downtown advocate, said she attended the first part of Friday's meeting, but had to leave early. She said she left before the proposed zoning ordinance changes were discussed in detail.

"It was kind of a little misleading," she said. "[The meeting] was not really focused on zoning."

Councilman Justin Mendes said it made sense to bring up the zoning ordinance update as part of strategic planning.

He said Friday's agenda item was designed to not only bring Sorensen and Devine up to speed, but also to get the long general plan/zoning ordinance update process closer to a final vote by the council.

"The city has put a lot of time and money into the general plan [update]," Mendes said. "Our City Council members are going to have to adopt something soon. It is very urgent to get our members up to speed."

Sorensen recused herself from Friday's zoning ordinance discussion and left council chambers while the items were being discussed.

Sorensen has a part ownership share in a downtown building.

"I would be voting on things that could increase the value of a property I own," she said.

Sorensen said she's seeking clarification from the California Fair Political Practices Commission on whether it would be OK to vote on the overall general plan and zoning ordinance update.

"I'm erring on the side of caution at this point," she said.

Pyle said that vote could happen at the regularly scheduled council meeting on March 21.

"There's still a chance for the council to modify the document before it goes into effect," he said.

Reached by phone, Devine said he did not know why the controversial zoning items were put on Friday's special meeting agenda.

"I am just learning and gaining a full understanding of procedures and the way things are done, so I honestly don't know why it was done that way," he said.

Devine said he could understand why people who wanted to comment on the items "would be disappointed" that the subject was on Friday's agenda.

Special meetings are usually scheduled to deal with urgency items that need immediate action.

According to Pyle, there is some time pressure to get the general plan and zoning ordinance update finished.

He said the city has spent more than $1 million on the process, including hiring a consultant.

"We don't have any more money to spend doing the work," Pyle said. "The longer you wait to adopt it, the less valid the document is. We're not sure what is gained by further delaying the process."

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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