At Monday's Visalia City Council meeting, Maria Guillén urged the council to "mourn the dead but fight like hell for the living," by voting against a rezone that would allow the Visalia Public Cemetery to expand and take away housing.

May 1, 2023 — Visalia City Council

Documented by Jackie Schuster

What happened: At Monday’s Visalia City Council meeting, resident Maria Guillén quoted Mother Jones urging council members to, “mourn the dead but fight like hell for the living,” by voting against a rezone that would allow the Visalia Public Cemetery to pursue expansion on neighboring land where homes are located.

She was joined by so many others that staff added chairs and opened an overflow room so they could voice their concerns about the cemetery district’s request to rezone 3.5 acres from residential to public institutional, which the council members ultimately decided to send back to the Planning Commission.

In a 3-2 vote, the rezone request was vacated and the Visalia Public Cemetery District must now work with the Planning Commission to negotiate terms before bringing it back to the council in four to six weeks. Visalia Mayor Brian Poochigian and Vice Mayor Brett Taylor voted against the decision.

Tom Johnson, chair of the Visalia Public Cemetery Board, said in the past the district has purchased properties at market rate and has never used eminent domain to acquire land, but admitted that he does not know what actions future cemetery board members will take.

The Visalia Public Cemetery’s expansion plan includes acquiring 16 adjacent parcels along Rinaldi and Turner streets currently zoned for residential housing.

During the meeting, many residents voiced concerns that the cemetery expansion will uproot the community, negatively impact nearby Houston Elementary School and take away much needed housing.

Randy Villegas, trustee for Visalia Unified School District Area 6, which encompasses some of the areas in the cemetery’s proposed expansion, said families are worried about what will happen to their children’s school and their houses if the amendments are approved. Villegas said there’s no guarantee that people who are bought out of their homes could afford to relocate and that the city should consider using the city-owned golf course as a location for cemetery expansion instead. 

“If the city won’t consider disrupting business as usual for some of the city’s more affluent members, we shouldn’t consider interrupting the lives of those less affluent,” he said.

Vanessa Gonzales said she lives within 300 feet of the cemetery zone and that many of her neighbors were at the meeting, concerned about their housing and their children. She said that all council members said they value affordable housing during their election runs, so when she sees them considering taking homes from her neighbors and asking them to find an affordable home somewhere else, that is upsetting to her.

Another neighborhood resident, Hollis Elliot Fernandez, said that there are 15 current lots that have been demolished by the cemetery district, one of which she couldn’t find the proper demolition permits for on file with the city. She said it raised concerns for her as a local real estate agent because when she has to demolish a property they have to submit inspections about asbestos, lead paint, etc. If these were not done, then what else went on during those processes, she asked.

“It is expensive to be poor…over the course of these disasters we’ve had, when devastation happens, it usually happens in the most vulnerable communities,” said Tulare County Supervisor Eddie Valero who represents District 4, which includes a small portion of Visalia a few blocks from where the cemetery is located.

Up next: The Visalia City Council is scheduled to meet again on May 15.

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The Fresno Documenters are a group of local residents who are trained and paid to attend and take notes at local public meetings where officials decide how to spend public money and make important decisions...