A botched process?

Supervisors told county failed to notify Bell-Muir residents about rezone

The yellow portions of this map show the Bell-Muir Extension area in northwest Chico. The owners of the orange highlighted areas want to split their parcels.

The yellow portions of this map show the Bell-Muir Extension area in northwest Chico. The owners of the orange highlighted areas want to split their parcels.

Photo illustration by sandy peters

An unusual request made at the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Aug. 25, raised a number of controversial issues involving the Greenline and the county’s planning and zoning process. It also injected “a threat of litigation,” in the words of County Counsel Bruce Alpert.

Making the request was Pete Peterson, a major almond grower in the area and the owner of Chico Nut Co. Peterson also owns a large lot north of Bell Road, in an area that is called the Bell-Muir Extension (BME). He wants the board to initiate a general-plan amendment enlarging the minimum lot size in the area.

There are 33 parcels on about 130 acres in the BME; 10 of the lots are larger than 5 acres, the rest smaller. The larger lots are located north of Bell Road, while the smaller ones border Muir Avenue to the west (see map). Together they form a buffer or transition zone between urban development to the south and farmland to the north and west. All are in the county.

Originally, under General Plan 2030, which was adopted in 2010, the area was zoned Rural Residential, which has a 5-acre minimum. The county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors both passed the RR designation unanimously.

Two years later, however, both bodies approved amendments to the general plan changing the land-use designation to Very Low Density Residential (VLDR) 2.5, which reduced the minimum lot size by half.

Peterson’s argument, delivered by his attorney, Andrew McClure, was that the county failed to provide the required notice to interested parties and the general public informing them of the content of the hearings.

No letters went out to landowners, and a September 2012 newspaper notice advertising a crucial Planning Commission hearing to consider general-plan amendments did not mention the BME. In fact, McClure said, residents of the area didn’t learn about the change until 2014, when they saw a sign posted at the corner of Bell Road and Jones Avenue advertising four lots for sale. All were smaller than 5 acres.

The 13-acre parcel from which those lots were carved is owned by Bob Kromer, a retired businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Chico City Council in 2010. It was he who originally requested the zoning change, McClure said. And, as it turned out, Kromer was the only BME landowner to appear and testify at the September 2012 hearing.

For his part, Kromer insisted that the zoning process was ongoing, that neighbors were invited to participate, and that most of them supported the VLDR zoning. He urged the board to uphold “the integrity of the zoning process.”

Kromer isn’t the only landowner seeking to split a parcel. Monty Cameron told the board that she and her husband had bought a 5.3-acre parcel in the BME a year ago on which the lot-splitting process already had begun. The previous owner had paid thousand of dollars in fees and engineering costs. Part of the reason they bought the property, she said, was being able to sell the 2.5 acres being split off.

Several speakers characterized the VLDR zoning as “urban” and therefore inappropriate for an area that is outside the Greenline, the boundary protecting Chico’s westside orchard lands from urban-style development. They said Rural Residential, on the other hand, was appropriate.

District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk was convinced notification had been inadequate. Citing the newspaper ad that didn’t mention the BME, she said “It was clearly pointed out by Mr. McClure that it wasn’t noticed.”

Tim Snellings, director of the Development Services Department, replied that the hearings took place during the hectic height of the zoning process. “In that context we couldn’t contact everyone,” he acknowledged.

Their outreach is “legally defensible,” he said, “but I understand the concerns. We did our best, but it wasn’t good enough in this case.”

Snellings asked for a brief recess so he, Alpert and Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn could come up with a compromise solution, but after 10 minutes he returned to say they needed more time. The matter was continued to the Sept. 15 board meeting.