Ag buffer backed

County denies developer’s appeal, cites setbacks

Opponents of the proposal to reduce setback requirements on farmland wore matching green T-shirts to public hearings.

Opponents of the proposal to reduce setback requirements on farmland wore matching green T-shirts to public hearings.

Photo by Robert Speer

For a subdivision proposal that had been through three public hearings over four months and generated reams of documentation, the end came fast. Getting there took a couple of hours, however.

At issue Tuesday (July 25) before the Butte County Board of Supervisors was a proposal to create 15 residential lots, all an acre or larger in size, on an 18.5-acre parcel off Stanley Avenue in unincorporated west Chico. Developer Nels Leen’s plan was to build high-end houses in the $700,000 to $800,000 range.

The problem was that, on its southern side, the parcel—which is shaped like a small boat seen in profile—is too wide and shallow to accommodate 300-foot setbacks, as required whenever new development adjoins active farmland. There are several small farms in the area, including a 146-acre walnut orchard owned by George Nicolaus that is separated from Leen’s property by Comanche Creek.

The purpose of the setback requirement is to minimize conflicts between farmers, whose operations are often noisy and dusty and involve the dispersal of nasty pesticides, and neighboring homeowners.

In March, the county Planning Commission denied Leen’s application by a 3-1 vote, saying it didn’t adhere to the county’s 300-foot setback requirement.

Leen appealed the denial to the Board of Supervisors, which held a hearing on June 13. (See “Buffer brawl,” by Meredith J. Cooper, Newslines, June 15.) It was a lively meeting, with a couple dozen opponents of the project wearing green T-shirts that read “Right to Farm.” Several of them told the supervisors they were concerned about urban development creeping onto ag lands.

No decision was made at that meeting, and the hearing was continued to this week.

In the meantime, Leen submitted an “alternative agriculture buffer setback configuration,” in which he tweaked his proposal hoping to make it more palatable to opponents and the supervisors. As explained by his spokesman, Jim Stevens of NorthStar Engineering, the developer would plant new evergreen vegetation along the creek to fill in any gaps and present a better buffer between the farm and the neighborhood. Some of the setbacks had been lengthened, as well.

“Butte County residents understand that they are living in farm country,” he continued. “They understand there’s noise and dust, but the number of people who complain to the county are in the single digits.”

Despite the changes, some of the setbacks still would be only 150 feet, not enough to prevent conflicts, said Agriculture Commissioner Louis Mendoza Jr. He read out a long list of pesticides walnut growers use, including rodenticides, herbicides, miticides and many more. Data show they are applied year-round, he said.

The supervisors were of mixed mind on the issue. District 4 Supervisor Steve Lambert said he understood the concern about ag impacts, but he himself was concerned about the developer’s property rights.

Board Chairman Bill Connelly, whose District 1 encompasses Oroville, noted, “This is the best soil in the world. … The setback is part of an effort to protect ag land.” Speaking to the developer, he said, “You gotta get real close to 300 feet to get my vote.”

District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk agreed. “Lots with 150-foot setbacks are simply not acceptable,” she said.

District 2 Supervisor Larry Wahl was the only panelist who thought the smaller setbacks would be feasible. He said he had faith in Nicolaus’ use of pesticides so that wouldn’t impinge on his neighbors.

The supervisors then did something unusual. They took a 15-minute break so that Leen, Stevens and their colleagues could brainstorm in an effort to come up with setback lengths the supervisors could accept.

When the hearing resumed, Stevens told the supervisors Leen would put in a double row of evergreens along Comanche Creek and—more to the point—design the lots so that all would have a setback of at least 225 feet.

It was a good try, but it wasn’t enough. Without discussion, Lambert moved to deny the application, Kirk quickly seconded his motion, and the supervisors voted yea 4-1, with Wahl dissenting. After four months, the project was killed in a minute.