Annexation back on table

City, LAFCo agree to form a plan for annexation

The Chapman district (top shaded area) and the Mulberry district (bottom shaded area) are two pockets of county land LAFCo wants the city of Chico to annex.

The Chapman district (top shaded area) and the Mulberry district (bottom shaded area) are two pockets of county land LAFCo wants the city of Chico to annex.

map courtesy of the city of Chico

Chico’s Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood is going to be annexed to the city. It’s not a question of whether, but when.

It’s a knotty question, however, one that for several years has had the Butte Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), which oversees annexations, at odds with the city of Chico. Commission members are frustrated by the city’s failure to move on it, even when agreements have been made, and city officials believe they’re being pushed to do something neither they nor residents of the neighborhood want right now.

The dispute came to a head once again at the City Council’s Jan. 21 meeting, when the panel considered a strongly worded Dec. 19, 2013, letter from commission Chairman Carl Leverenz. Emotions ran high among the council members, in no small part because of the way City Manager Brian Nakamura, in his agenda report to the council, characterized Leverenz’s letter.

“LAFCo’s letter,” Nakamura wrote, “infers and states that the City has not done an acceptable job of annexing County islands over the years and that when annexed, the City ‘cherry-picked’ only the best/highest value areas.” It also, he continued, “insinuates that the City has denied ‘environmental justice’ to those lower-income families living in the islands we have yet to annex.”

Several council members seemed to accept Nakamura’s analysis as gospel.

“LAFCo is charging that we’re excluding Chapman-Mulberry because it’s low-income, but that’s not true,” responded Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who is an alternate member of the commission.

Councilman Mark Sorensen was especially angry. “When I read the letter, to say I had a negative reaction is a massive understatement. … The suggestion that we’re red-lining the area is all wrong.”

Well, yes, it was wrong—because Leverenz’s letter said nothing of the sort. Nor did it charge the city with “cherry-picking” affluent neighborhoods or denying “environmental justice” to low-income families.

During breaks in the meeting, I asked several city officials to show me where the letter said what Nakamura charged it said. Mayor Scott Gruendl, Sorensen and Nakamura himself were unable to do so.

“I got my information from Mark Wolfe,” Nakamura said, referring to the city’s community development director.

Later, in a phone interview, Wolfe acknowledged that he, not Nakamura, had written the agenda report. He agreed that Leverenz’s letter didn’t say what he said it said.

It was “an overexpression of my frustration,” he said, and was based on conversations and correspondence the city has had with LAFCo over the years.

From his—and the city’s—perspective, LAFCo has never appreciated how hard the city has worked to annex thousands of acres of unincorporated land. For the commission to suggest that the city was somehow favoring affluent neighborhoods and shunting aside poor communities is wrong and unfair, Wolfe said.

LAFCo and the city agree that all of urban Chico should be inside city limits. LAFCo also holds that, under state law, when a property is hooked up to city sewer, it should be annexed. Its members are frustrated that the city has connected some 62 properties to the sewer without annexing—and without obtaining LAFCo’s authorization or paying its fees.

At the council’s Jan. 21 meeting, Wolfe acknowledged that “mistakes have been made” and said it was now city policy to refer county residents wanting sewer services to LAFCo first.

Meanwhile, the city’s position is that it doesn’t have the resources to annex the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood, even if residents wanted to come into the city. Wolfe pointed out that budget cuts have left him with only four planners on staff, where once there were 10 or more.

“It’s a huge effort to annex,” he said. “Right now, when we have only a third of our former resources, it’s not a priority.”

The city also argues that it can’t afford to provide city services to newly annexed areas.

But it can, responds LAFCo’s executive officer, Stephen Lucas. A recent annexation report, prepared by the county using city-supplied data, shows that “by and large, revenues from the annexed areas will cover the costs the city will have.”

He noted that the Chapman-Mulberry neighborhood, as well as another area along Stewart Avenue west of Nord Avenue, is a “disadvantaged unincorporated community” that would benefit greatly from city services.

Neither Lucas nor Leverenz accused the city of favoritism, and both saluted its annexation efforts thus far. But Lucas did note that the city has annexed a number of large high-tax-generating areas, such as those in southeast Chico and off the north Esplanade in the Northwest Chico Specific Plan.

Despite the rancor that bubbled up at the Jan. 21 council meeting, the panel did follow Councilwoman Mary Goloff’s advice, voting to meet with LAFCo to try to break the impasse. Subsequently, Gruendl and Leverenz got together and agreed to set up an ad-hoc committee to come up with an annexation plan.

It won’t be the first such plan, but maybe this time it will bear fruit. As Leverenz put it, “We don’t need to fight. We just need to get the problem solved.”

Wolfe agrees. “All this has really come to a head lately. … That’s good news for everybody.”