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Amrik Bhandal is developing a new hotel and retail project next to his Big B’s Travel Center in Earlimart. Two years ago he signed a franchise agreement with La Quinta, but delays could hinder the project. Photos by David Castellon

published on May 2, 2019 - 1:45 PM
Written by David Castellon

To people driving along Highway 99, it may not look like much is happening in the town of Earlimart.

Looks can be deceiving.

A lot is poised to happen in this little town near the southern edge of Tulare County.

After decades of very little development, in the past few years a small shopping center went up on Sierra Avenue, just west of the freeway, consisting of a McDonald’s, Auto Zone and a Dollar General, the latter two offering shopping options not previously available without taking long drives north to Tulare or south across the Kern County line to Delano.

But the developer of the White River Plaza shopping center isn’t done, as he has plans to expand on an adjoining vacant lot, building a supermarket — the first in town — and small shops.

Philip Nystrom, superintendent of the Earlimart Elementary School District, photographs students attending a rally at Earlimart Middle School. Nystrom and other district officials are supportive of efforts to build a new, 190-home subdivision in the town.

 

Meanwhile, across the west side of 99, plans are to level a small, 15-room hotel built in the 1950s and replace it with a new, 67-room hotel and restaurant, along with additional businesses on the nearly four-acre parcel.

Another developer has plans to build at least 190 new homes near Earlimart’s middle school on a nearly 45-acre parcel.

 

Stemming the tide

That project alone is being heavily supported by the Earlimart Elementary School District, which operates the town’s two elementary schools, a middle school and a comminute day school, with about 1,700 students combined.

The district has lost about 250 students in recent years, some to competition from a local charter school in Delano and some to parents having difficulty finding available housing in Earlimart, said Philip Nystrom, the district’s superintendent.

“There are opportunities outside of Earlimart that families are taking advantage of — new homes for reasonable mortgages.”

Fewer students in Earlimart’s schools result in less state funding.

Nystrom said he has seen the attendance numbers drop over the last three to five years, in part because multiple generations living under one roof in the area is becoming less common, raising the number of adult family members seeking their own homes locally, “and there isn’t a place they can move into.

“I’ve talked to many former students and others, and they want to be here,” said the superintendent, adding that going forward on the proposed as yet unnamed 190-home development would go a long way to helping those people and elevating school attendance numbers in Earlimart.

As exciting and potentially beneficial these projects could be — from stemming the exodus of residents to adding needed jobs to a largely low-income community — all these development projects have been stalled, some for several years.

 

Water wanted

Amrik Bhandal, who is developing the new hotel and retail project next to his Big B’s Travel Center, a truck stop and gas station, said two years ago he signed a franchise agreement to make his hotel a La Quinta, so he would like to break ground soon on his projects, but he and the other developers are being hindered by the same problem.

“They don’t give me enough water for the hotel and the shopping area,” Bhandal said of the Earlimart Public Utility District, which operates the water and sewage systems in and around the town.

The problem actually isn’t a lack of water but rather that the existing water lines that would service Bhandal’s businesses and the other new developments are too small to handle the added demand. A comparable problem exists for Earlimart’s sewer lines.

Not that this is a new problem.

Bhandal said that when he built his truck stop about a dozen years ago, the utility district wouldn’t allow him to connect to Earlimart’s sewage system, and he instead had to build a septic tank for his waste and water runoff, as well as recapture the water from Mr. B’s car wash.

 

A workaround

The more common solution to Earlimart’s sewage limitations has been to compel owners of new businesses and homes to construct storage tanks with pumps that hold waste and used water during the day and automatically pump the water to Earlimart’s sewage treatment plan in the wee hours of the morning, when the system isn’t much in use.

That’s what Sohan Mahal did when he relocated his business, Country Hardware, from across town to a newly constructed building 10 or 11 years ago.

But while that’s an effective workaround for an occasional small business or home added to

Earlimart’s landscape, experts said it wouldn’t work for the large projects envisioned by the various developers.

This isn’t a surprising problem, as Earlimart’s sewage system alone dates back to the mid 1950s, making it too old and frail to increase much demand on it without major upgrades, and the fact that it wasn’t designed to handle many additional customers.

 

Cost prohibitive

The simple solution is to either replace its water and sewer lines with larger ones or install separate, parallel lines serving the proposed new homes and businesses.

But the delay has come down to cost, with district officials estimating that installing a parallel, 1.5-mile sewer line that could serve the three development projects alone would cost about $2 million.

The utility district had made agreements with the housing developer to pay to fully install the needed sewer line, with the other developers paying him back their portions for the total project in order to connect to the system, but those agreements have expired, said Dennis Keller, the district’s engineer.

The home developer, Rajinderpal S. Dhillon, couldn’t be reached for comment, and his civil engineer on the project, Bernard Salgado, said he didn’t know why his client didn’t lay the pipe.

He added that the developers laying the water and sewer lines actually would be more cost effective, as the district is a public agency required by law to pay prevailing wages to the workers involved, which would significantly elevate the cost.

As for the possibility of the district paying for the new lines on the outset and then charging development fees for the new homes and businesses to connect, Keller said that while the district board of directors favors the new developments, they will not take out a loan to pay for the additional water and sewage lines, nor would they seek to raise utility rates and put the financial burden on existing customers.

 

Finding a way?

Even though Earlimart is unincorporated, the cost for such improvements has to be born by the developers or the Earlimart Public Utility District, not Tulare County, said Mike Washam, associate manager of the Tulare County Resource Management Agency.

Members of the board and its administration contacted declined to be interviewed, except to say they’re seeking grants to pay for the work, and Washam said his agency is assisting in that.

He noted that the district may be facing an uphill battle, as Earlimart has the lowest sewage rates in the county, and organizations offering grants often want communities to have bigger financial stakes in their projects, so the residents might first have to vote to raise their rates.

Keller said that might be a hard request to make, as Earlimart’s median household income is barely

$20,000 a year.

That’s a problem among rural communities across the Valley — having old, inadequate utility systems to handle growth, said Washam, adding that planned business developments in the southeast Tulare County town of Strathmore are facing problems getting off the ground due to comparable water and sewage issues.

Adding to the problem, Salgado said, is these communities often don’t want to raise fees to pay to expand or upgrade their systems.

“You have to raise fees to have growth and keep up with things.”

 

A little sacrifice

“I’d be OK with it,” as probably would most residents and business operators in Earlimart, Mahal said.

Whatever happens to jumpstart development there, it can’t happen soon enough for him, noting that it has been at least 10 or 15 years since the town saw significant numbers of new housing.

“We need more houses. It’s affecting business,” which is largely flat, Mahal said. “Not many people are coming in.”


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