Back at the Ranch

With a new City Council election brewing, an old Chico battle heats up

KEEP IT OPEN Hilary Locke, Jane Coleman, Nita Torres and Josephine Guardino are fighting to preserve Bidwell Ranch as open space.

KEEP IT OPEN Hilary Locke, Jane Coleman, Nita Torres and Josephine Guardino are fighting to preserve Bidwell Ranch as open space.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

On a late-August Sunday morning, a woman turns a key in a chained padlock on a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. The gate swings open with a slow metallic groan, and the four women, with a reporter in tow, walk onto an expanse of hundreds of acres of open land in northeast Chico that borders Bidwell Park.

The women, Hilary Locke, Jane Coleman, Nita Torres and Josephine Guardino, are walking across the most controversial and embattled piece of land in the political history of this town. To some this is Chico’s modern-day Gettysburg, the sacred site of a great (though blessedly nonviolent) battle fought and won for a noble purpose. It is the 720 acres, known today as Bidwell Ranch, whose fate—annexed parkland, ecological mitigation bank, natural preserve or generator of money for the development of neighborhood parks—has been 20 years in the making.

Three of the women, Locke, Torres and Coleman, belong to one more in a long line of groups organized to fight residential development on this land. Guardino is a botanist now working in Tehama County. The group is called “Save Bidwell Ranch Open Space,” or something like that. They are still working it out.

Their goal, they say, is to preserve Bidwell Park from any encroachment and keep development as far away from the park as possible.

“A lot of people think that it is already protected,” Torres says. “That is our main agenda right now, to educate the public. We’ve been going to the Farmers’ Market, and we’ve got other plans as well.”

The future of the property, tentatively to be zoned open land, is scheduled to come before the Chico Planning Commission on Sept. 16. That’s because on Jan. 27 of this year the City Council voted 4-3 to instruct city staff to start the process to downzone the land from medium-density development to open space, in theory preserving it forever.

But a few months after that directive, Coleen Jarvis, one of the four council members who voted in the majority, died in office, leaving an evenly divided council and the future of the property up in the air.

That future is tied up in a lot of emotion. Besides the death of Jarvis, Bidwell Ranch has a high-profile history that includes three elections—two City Council-approved advisory measures and one citizen-generated referendum. The results of all three elections came out strongly against any development.

Even the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon play into the shaping of what happens to this land. Now, as the November election draws near, two sides hunker down and get ready for the kind of political battle that only Chico can pull off.

All of this was triggered 20 years ago with the proposal of a residential development called Rancho Arroyo, whose first plan called for 4,400 units. Then, after the developer, Crocker Development, of Sacramento, decided that a project with that many units was not financially prudent, it presented a more modest and potentially profitable 2,994-unit proposal to the city. After a series of contentious hearings, the City Council eventually approved it, only to have it be rejected by a citizen referendum in 1988.

The “No Way, San Jose” campaign by Rancho Arroyo opponents was a watershed event in Chico politics—a grassroots campaign that overturned the largest development project in city history and did so soundly, by a stunning 58-42 percent margin.

The campaign was a united effort put forth by environmentalist Kelly Meagher, the Butte Environmental Council under General Manager Steve Evans, and then-Planning Commissioner Michael McGinnis, who would ride the success to an eight-year stint on the City Council, eventually becoming mayor. The effort also resurrected the political career of popular progressive David Guzzetti, who would be elected to three more City Council terms.

At the time, the fight was against the sheer amount of growth—enough for 6,000-8,000 people—and its location right on the front porch of Bidwell Park. The preservation of vernal pools and endangered species such as Butte County meadowfoam was practically unheard of.

“The issue in the election of ‘88 had nothing to do with any of that, really,” Meagher said. “That was all coming up at the time, but that basically was confined to another development south of Humboldt Road. The issue was, and I think still is, the proximity to the park.”

He said collecting signatures to qualify the referendum proved daunting.

“To be honest, the 30 days we had to collect signatures, the weather sucked, and after three weeks we didn’t have enough,” he recalled. “I had a potluck at my house with like 30 or 40 people, and I just told them, ‘I’m desperate.’ It rained every day in the next week, too, but we ended up turning in, I think, twice the number needed.”

Crocker Development pumped more money into the campaign to defeat the referendum than had ever been witnessed in a local election.

“They spent well over $200,000,” Meagher said. “Fortunately, they spent it badly. They never attempted to invest in the local community. They really didn’t have any local support here, except for those people who really hated us.”

Following the referendum, Crocker filed suit, claiming that failure to approve the project amounted to a “regulatory taking” of the property’s value. That suit was settled, with one of the conditions being that the city would work toward the ultimate approval of a project for the site.

Under the direction of Project Manager Bill Brouhard, the development was renamed Bidwell Ranch and was scaled down considerably. Where Rancho Arroyo was 2,994 units with 73 acres of dedicated open space, Bidwell Ranch called for 1,500 units with more than 450 acres of open space, 200 or them to be added to Bidwell Park. Crucially, the new proposal was in compliance with Chico’s new General Plan.

But Bidwell Ranch still amounted to the biggest project in recent city history, and the proposal still generated vehement opposition. A new group, Stop Bidwell Ranch, emerged to fight it. Previous opponents had tended to be environmentalists who held that any development would destroy invaluable wetlands habitat. But by the summer of 1996, it had become clear that most members of Stop Bidwell Ranch were homeowners worried that traffic generated by the development would overwhelm their neighborhoods.

The Stop Bidwell Ranch campaign was more organized, more broadly based and better funded than the No Way, San Jose effort that clobbered Rancho Arroyo, with members holding fund-raisers and promising a referendum before the project had even appeared on the City Council agenda.

All of this put the city in a bind: If it denied approval for the project, it would almost certainly face a lawsuit from Crocker, which could claim the city had not abided by the terms of the settlement of the earlier suit. If it approved the project, Stop Bidwell Ranch would sponsor a referendum. Given the group’s organization, commitment and broad-based support, that referendum might well succeed in overturning the project, which meant that the city would find itself facing a lawsuit.

As if that wasn’t complicated enough, Crocker itself had become delinquent on sewer fees for the project and, facing foreclosure by the city, filed for bankruptcy.

In June 1996 the City Council met in closed session to consider buying the property as a way out of this bind. This meeting was in apparent violation of California’s open-meeting laws—when government bodies discuss property sales in closed session they are required to first publish an agenda listing the properties to be discussed, which was not done in this case. Councilman Guzzetti rebelled against the secrecy and revealed the closed-session discussion to this paper, earning him the wrath of fellow Councilmember Mary Andrews and the praise of a Chico Enterprise-Record editorial—a rarity for the liberal Guzzetti.

THE WAY IT WAS Kelly Meagher, right, poses in 1988 with Rancho Arroyo supporter and local attorney Kevin Sweeney during the heyday of the fight to stop the development.

Photo By Mark Thalman

On Dec. 21, 1996, the council met again in closed session and voted 5-0-1 to buy the land for $4 million and pay off the more than $2 million in sewer assessment fees still owed by Crocker. Councilman Ted Hubert had died in office about a month earlier, and Councilman Rick Keene abstained, taking the politician’s way out so the vote would never come back to haunt him either way.

That left Guzzetti, Andrews, Jarvis, Kimberly King and Steve Bertagna voting in favor of the purchase. The battle over the most contentious development project in history was over, it seemed, and the anti-development faction had won.

But things change. Bertagna, the only councilmember left over from that time, has voted against zoning the property as open space. In fact, he thinks it should be taken out of the council’s hands altogether and returned to the voters.

“This needs to go to the voters,” Bertagna said last week. “We hear what the public wants, at least we are told by some. But I personally wouldn’t find it appropriate for six councilmembers to make a decision when a seventh is needed and the election is right around the corner.

“Maybe we could develop a small portion of Bidwell Ranch to cover the shortfall of park funding.”

That is a plan being offered by Bob Best, head of a citizens group called C.O.R.E., which stands for Civic Overview Research and Education (see"Best plan?” page 18).

After coming before the Planning Commission for a recommendation on Sept. 16—necessary because the rezone calls for an amendment to the city’s General Plan—it will go to the council for a final vote.

The Planning Commission vote is really just a formality, as evidenced by the fact that up until last week two of the commissioners had no idea it was on the agenda for their next meeting.

Jolene Francis, who chairs the Planning Commission and is a candidate for City Council, said she was unaware that Bidwell Ranch is back on the map.

“I don’t know if I have enough information to make a decision,” she said. “I know there are some in the community who would like to see it as open land and others who think we might benefit by selling some of it.”

As a council candidate, she says perhaps it’s a bigger decision than what a council should take on. She suggested a possible advisory measure after a series of town hall meetings and public workshops.

The needs and desires of the community, she said, have changed since the 1988 referendum, and the community itself is significantly different.

But then she added, “I grew up here. My father still lives two blocks from Bidwell Park. Protecting the park is non-negotiable.”

Kirk Monfort, another longtime member of the Planning Commission, echoed Francis in that he didn’t know the property was on the Sept. 16 agenda. He also mentioned another important consideration.

“I think I’m really puzzled that this is still an issue,” he said. “My understanding of the Airport Land Use Plan is that if you build one stick on this land, the CDF [California Department of Forestry] is leaving.”

The property lies just southeast of the Chico Municipal Airport, which is used by the heavy, creaking fire-retardant-carrying planes that fly over the land on their slow takeoffs for CDF.

Monfort suggested the only way a developer would be interested in building there today would be if the city picked up all the costs and the risks associated with the development.

“That’s how we killed it the first time around,” he joked. “We conditioned it to the point of making it too expensive to build on. We just cynically conditioned it to death so Crocker couldn’t build.”

Whatever the commission does, the council vote will most likely end in a 3-3 tie and be carried over for consideration by the new council, which has four seats—a majority—up for re-election.

Community Development Director Tony Baptiste says he owes his employment with the city to Rancho Arroyo.

“I was hired in 1982 because it looked like Ranch Arroyo was a go and they were going to need more [building] inspectors,” he said.

He said staff is still working on the directive it received last January to downzone the property to open space. The city’s housing element—the plan designed to fill the future needs of Chico’s living space—has to be consistent with the General Plan, and that plan included up to 1,500 units on Bidwell Ranch.

If the city downzones property, it must find additional units to make up for those lost to open space, according to state law.

“The staff went through the housing element and will identify where 1,500 homes would be added to the housing element to make up for the 1,500 lost in Bidwell Ranch,” Baptiste said.

However, he added, the city currently has a cushion in the number of housing units it needs to provide to meet state law.

“If these were low-income housing being taken out, then the city most likely would be running afoul of the law,” Baptiste said.

HE WALKS THE LINE Michael Jones says part of Bidwell Ranch should be added to Bidwell Park and part should be developed for low- and moderate-income families.

Photo By Tom Angel

Any housing built on the property, because of the cost to bring infrastructure and get it ready for development, estimated to be at least $1 million, will not be for low- or moderate-income buyers.

The undulating landscape of Bidwell Ranch is golden with grass and star thistle. On an unusually cool August day, the sun is filtered through a ceiling of high clouds that create a mottled sky of gray and wispy-white.

The graveled road that follows the southern border of the acreage and sweeps easterly up to where the foothills start to rise crunches under our feet as we walk. We come upon a slight depression where the weeds and grass are thin. You can see the cracked dried-mud pattern of the ground. It is a vernal pool in its late-summer state, with some native plants still growing, including the pungent-smelling vinegar weed.

In the spring this pool is teeming with life, fairy shrimp and tadpoles, wildflowers abound and the land is green with new plants. About one-third of the property supports vernal pools, a fast-disappearing ecological feature in California.

Other parts of the property support Butte County meadowfoam, an endangered species protected by the federal government. In fact, only about 240 of the 700-plus acres are considered environmentally suitable for building.

On this day, the women defending the open space of Bidwell Ranch don’t think photos of the dried land will lend much to their cause and hope this newspaper will instead publish photos taken in the spring.

That scene is beautiful compared to the dry mud and yellow grass and thistles that now dominate the landscape, at least to the causal observer. For someone like botanist Josephine Guardino, the late-summer condition of the land is just as intriguing as the postcard beauty of its spring presentation.

She points out the vinegar weed and morning glory growing here. She grabs what looks like nondescript weed.

“This is actually an invasive plant of vernal pools right now,” she says. “You can’t really tell, but this is a sunflower, and these plants will grow only in vernal pools. They won’t grow upland.”

“Upland” is the terrain that sits just outside the lip of a vernal pool.

“This vegetation in here is 90-percent native,” Guardino explains, “whereas the uplands [vegetation] is 90-percent non-native. As the pools become modified the margins start closing in.”

Guardino says that building near the vernal pools can affect them because buildings and pavement alter the water runoff patterns.

There are visible tire ruts where four-wheel vehicles have driven across the property, close to the vernal pools.

Bordering Bidwell Ranch just past the power lines that mark the eastern property line is the Brown property, thousands of acres used for grazing that hold a trailer surrounded by some oak trees. According to documents in the Assessor’s Office, the property belongs to Fletcher Brown and his six family members.

As we crunch along, Torres says she understands there is a bit of a disagreement in the family over what to do with the property.

In fact, the Browns once owned the land we are walking on and originally threw in with Crocker on the first proposed development. By 1984 they had sold to Crocker.

“I know they still have their cows here and they own property in Greenville,” Torres says. “They are an old ranching family.”

The women agree that the pressure to develop open land is probably what’s leading to the Browns’ family feud and if Bidwell Ranch develops the Brown property, domino-like, will be that much closer to development.

The western property line is marked by the Sycamore Creek diversion channel, which Coleman thinks provides a natural barrier where Chico development should stop as it heads to the east.

The channel runs between the ranch and Wildwood Park, a 28-acre neighborhood park the city purchased from Crocker in one of their many dealings.

Locke and Torres both live in southwest Chico, near the old Diamond Match property, so they are not NIMBYs when it comes to Bidwell Ranch.

Indeed, they would rather see development on the Diamond land than at Bidwell Ranch. There are, in fact, plans for a mixed-use development there called Barber Yard.

“That is 150 acres right there, and that is a big development that is going to affect our lives,” Torres says. “I know people in my neighborhood are going to get pissed to hear me say that, but I don’t want to see housing go next to the park because that is everybody’s neighborhood.”

Development may be inevitable across Chico, but this land, in their minds, should be off limits. And they have a deep respect for what’s gone before in protecting this property.

“It would be tragic if all the work were for naught,” Locke says. “Whatever the referendum said as far as that specific development, I think the idea was that land shouldn’t be developed. I think that is what people were asking for.”

They say that, while they favor making the land a nature preserve, affording it more protection than if it were to be added to the park, their main objective is to stop any development.

BIRDS'-EYE VIEW This aerial view of Bidwell Ranch shows the extent of the property. Shaded areas represent areas of concentrated ephemeral drainage and vernal pools. Areas circled with broken lines represent concentrations of vernal pools. Butte County meadowfoam is located almost exclusively on the northern third of the property.

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

“The first thing we need is to preserve it,” Locke says. “There are pros and cons about whether it should be part of the park that will have to be worked out.”

Torres said another group working to preserve the land, Friends of Bidwell Park, is also urging the open-space zoning at this point.

“We are just trying to get it protected,” she says. “The reason we stopped saying, ‘Annex it to the park,’ is because someone will come along and say, ‘We want a Frisbee golf course,’ or, ‘We want to view stars or add more to the golf course.’ The park keeps taking over, and this open vista, what we’re so famous for, is disappearing.”

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, is among those who think it’s perfectly OK to restrict access to certain public lands in order to protect sensitive ecological systems there.

“I believe [Bidwell Ranch] should remain permanently open and with limited access,” said Vlamis. “Once we designate it as parkland, it has a different connotation.”

BEC, which under a series of directors has fought to protect Bidwell Ranch over the last 20 years, also conducts two Bidwell Park cleanups each year. Vlamis does not relish adding more work to that biannual effort. “How many more cleanups do we need to do?” she asked.

She doesn’t want to close the property off altogether, however: “When I say restricted, I don’t mean absolutely no access, just that there be some control.”

Vlamis, too, appreciates the character of the land in the late summer.

“I just love to see it this time of year from the air. The imprint on the land just jumps out at you.”

One person who thinks part of the property could be developed and part added to the park is Michael Jones, a local dentist, trail blazer and fierce defender of public access to public lands. Jones says the land should not be off limits and has repeated those feelings in numerous letters to the editor and in public testimony at public meetings.

Torres says Jones is “misinformed.”

“We’ve been taking school kids out there for five years as well as taking the general public out there,” she said.

Coleman, considering Jones’ aggressive approach to the issue, suggests it would “probably a good idea to sit down and talk with him rather than exchange snide comments.”

Jones said he thinks the Butte County meadowfoam populations should be fenced off and “the Mount Lassen Chapter of the Native Plant Society should be given $100,000 to develop an environmentally sound nature path for the public to view our special species, on their own without a guide.

“I trust the public to be respectful, if the presentation treats the public as grown-ups. I’m serious, this is not tongue-in-cheek. I’m a (non-welcome) CNPS member.”

And he thinks the vernal pools and swales should be added to the park.

“The fence between Bidwell Park and Bidwell Ranch should be removed immediately,” he said. “Other vernal pools and wetlands should be open—to foot, no vehicles—and dedicated as open space.”

The remaining land, he said, should be reserved for moderate- to high-density housing.

“The housing should be for low- and moderate-income. The Municipal Code states the Planning Commission is supposed to make plans to implement the General Plan; however, they generally pick around the edge at plans presented by developers or staff.

“Here is a nearly unique opportunity for our current unusually well-qualified and well-balanced planning commissioners to create special neighborhoods. Careful consideration of the view from Bidwell Park should be given; the buildings should front attractively on a single loaded street facing the new addition to the park; the houses should not back up to the park.”

About four years ago the city submitted an application to the Federal Aviation Administration asking for help in paying off the Bidwell Ranch purchase as a clear zone for the airport.

“It was a 7-year-old brainstorm that some of us had, saying maybe there is a way out of this Bidwell Ranch dilemma,” recalled City Manager Tom Lando. “Maybe we can get some money for the property, we thought. [Councilman] Rick [Keene] was very adamant that we needed money. He was not willing to just write this off as open space. So he came with this proposal at the time, and I thought everybody would say a resounding ‘Yes!’ But unfortunately this is Chico, and it didn’t happen.”

The argument was that, as long as the property remained zoned for development, the FAA would see the need to buy it and set it aside as an over-flight zone for the airport. But if the city were to rezone it as open land, the FAA would not see the need to invest.

The FAA told the city it was likely to get a discretionary grant to help pay off the property as long as there was the threat of development. It would take some time, but the federal agency was definitely interested.

Then came Sept. 11, and all the money went to other things.

“At this point we still have an application in,” said Lando. “I would say our chances aren’t very good, at least short-term.

“I was actually one of the ones asking council not to designate it open space. My own opinion is—I know I’m politically naïve about these things—I just see an incredible hurdle for anyone who wants to develop this property. I personally don’t see any intense development occurring ever. So once we tell the FAA we are designating it open space, it really would be a waste of money.

“I want to also recognize it is a council decision, and I want to recognize council’s made a decision a 4-3 vote that says we will designate it open space. That is a current official city position. But when we come back [to it], there is not that fourth vote. We would expect it will deadlock 3-3.”

Which means, of course, that it stands to become a big issue in the upcoming City Council election.