Thrive Fitness loses permits

Council votes to uphold planning commission decision

Charles Doud/The Madera Tribune Sanjiv Chapra, left, and Christopher Montoya.

 

The Madera City Council has voted to uphold a city planning commission decision to revoke the operating permits for Thrive Fitness, a gym and swimming pool operation at the corner of Orchard and Sunset avenues.

The vote came Wednesday night after a nearly two-hour hearing during which people on both sides of the issue spoke firmly and sometimes emotionally about why they either wanted the gym closed or allowed to remain open.

The club has been a neighborhood fixture for decades, said city planning director Chris Boyle, as he outlined the history of the building.

It was built in 1955 and annexed into the city in 1963, Boyle said. For some 20 years after that, he said, the club expanded on the basis of a letter from the city that indicated the club could continue to operate even though the city was expanding around it.

That ended in 1985, when more conditions were applied. Eventually parking became the largest issue, with the requirement for a parking lot, which was built in 1991.

Today, Boyle said, the membership of some 3,000 far exceeds the parking requirements in the conditional use permits.

Surrounding neighbors have complained about the traffic caused by the gym’s clients and the intrusions on their privacy caused by the comings and goings of gym clients. They also have complained about noise, litter and what some say may be illegal activities in the parking lot at the corner of Orchard and Venturi avenues.

Boyle said the 32,000-square-foot structure is served by 76 parking stalls.

He said the unmitigated overuse of the property was what led to revocation of the conditional use permits.

He said the athletic club doesn’t operate today in the same manner it did in years past.

City Attorney Brent Richardson said the job of the council at Wednesday’s hearing would be to see whether the planning commission erred in its decision to revoke the use permits.

Sophie Treater — a Santa Margarita attorney who represented Merchant Men, owner of the property — said she disagreed with most of the city’s assertions as to whether the conditions of the present permits had been violated.

She said her client had presented a parking plan that could ameliorate many of the problems neighbors were complaining about.

She also said the intensification of use that had occurred over the years wasn’t illegal. She said a compromise could be developed that could satisfy everyone concerned.

She also showed photos of parking areas around the gym, which appeared to display plenty of open parking. She and her client were later criticized by members of the council for attempting to sway the council with photos that they said were meant to mislead.

She said the parking problems weren’t new, and solutions to them were familiar. She said the owners of the facility merely needed time to implement them.

Christopher Montoya, who has owned Thrive Fitness and still owns the property where it is located, told of being a local business owner, and said, “I’m really proud of what we’ve done here.” He said the facilities at the club have helped people reach and maintain health.

“I’d hate to see us give up,” he said.

Cynthia Hurenkamp, a resident of Venturi Avenue, took issue with almost every claim made by Treater.

“We keep our yards neat, we don’t play loud music,” she said.

Until recent years, she said, the club had not been a problem in the community, and many residents had belonged to the club.

But, she said, as ownerships of the clubs changed, crime, litter and traffic had begun to have negative effects on life in the area.

“So many promises were broken over the years,” she said, “we felt victimized.” She said crime in the parking lot had turned it into a little “den of iniquity.”

She said at that point the neighbors went to the city for relief, but that was slow in coming until Councilman Andy Medellin took interest.

“We began to pin all our hopes on the city to do something,” she said.

Progress was slow, but a hearing was scheduled. The planning commission granted Montoya more time to respond to the complaints, Hurenkamp said, frustrating the neighborhood again.

Finally, the planning commission voted in July to suspend the gym’s permits to operate.

As it has the right to do, the company appealed the decision, which led to Wednesday’s hearings. The company also has another avenue to delay closure, which is to challenge the city’s action by filing a writ of mandate within 90 days of the decision to uphold.

Others testified in favor of keeping the gym open, primarily because they were users of the pool. They said they had not seen evidence of the problems being described by Hurenkamp and her neighbors.

They pointed out the absence of any other year-round swimming facility in the city, and said if Thrive Fitness were forced to close, they would have to go to Fresno to swim.

Others described good results they had had with Thrive’s exercise programs.

At the end, though, the council was highly critical of Thrive, and of Montoya in particular.

Montoya, who owns other fitness locations in the city, said the attrition rate has been high at the Sunset and Orchard location — as high as 90 percent. He said this requires an aggressive recruitment of new members.

Medellin said, “I think this was something you, Mr. Montoya, created.”

He said the city’s planning department had made multiple efforts to work with Montoya, but that Montoya had pretty much ignored those overtures.

Councilwoman Cece Foley Gallegos, who lives not far from the gym, said, “Shame on you, Mr. Montoya, for ruining that gym.”

The vote to uphold the planning commission’s decision to revoke Thrive’s permits was 5-2.