Base camp questions

Famed journalist visits Camp Fire burn zone, offers warning of disaster profiteering

Journalist Naomi Klein, left, tours Paradise with Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter on Saturday (Sept. 28) before giving a talk at Chico State.

Journalist Naomi Klein, left, tours Paradise with Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter on Saturday (Sept. 28) before giving a talk at Chico State.

Photo by Andre Byik

Hours before taking the stage last Saturday (Sept. 28) at Chico State, journalist and author Naomi Klein went on a mission.

Klein—author of 2007’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism—hopped in a white Volkswagen van driven by Mark Stemen, a Chico State professor in the geography and planning department, and headed up the Skyway to tour the former Tuscan Ridge Golf Club.

Stemen had invited Klein to town and alerted her to a curious development: The owners of Tuscan Ridge, which is currently being used as a base camp for Camp Fire recovery workers, have quietly been exploring plans to build a 1,000-plus-unit housing project on the site.

The possible housing development—much larger than anything previously proposed for the site—also raised the eyebrows of Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter. Ritter joined Stemen and Klein on the tour of the former golf course, driving along gravel roads, in between rows of camp bungalows and around a wastewater treatment system that can process up to 100,000 gallons per day.

Stemen said infrastructure developed at the site alongside its base camp operations raised questions for him regarding whether public money is supporting future private development. Klein, who covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, told the CN&R there is precedent for private business to profit off taxpayer dollars following a disaster, and there should be clarity regarding the number and type of homes that are being explored for Tuscan Ridge.

“You need to find out exactly how much public money has been sunk into that site,” Klein later told an audience gathered at Harlen Adams Theatre as part of a speaking tour supporting her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. “And I suspect it will be enough for the public to have a right to say what should be on that site.”

Over the last year, Tuscan Ridge has been used as a staging and housing area for Camp Fire recovery efforts—first for PG&E and, most recently, for state-contracted debris removal crews. Tuscan Ridge owners—led by developer Mo West—had in recent years been pursuing a renovation of the golf course to include about 180 residential properties (see “Course closes … kinda,” Newslines, July 6, 2017).

But after the fire, plans have changed. According to a preliminary project description obtained by the CN&R and dated Aug. 10, 2019, ownership was exploring a project comprising an 1,100-unit residential, recreational and commercial community.

“This site provides a great opportunity to address the housing needs for … Butte County in light of the Camp Fire and general growth of our communities,” the document reads. “The design will provide a wide range of housing from single family dwellings to high density lofts. We are targeting both market rate housing and low to moderate housing to serve the [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], [California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services] and [U.S. Department of Agriculture] support.”

All the aforementioned government agencies had been in contact with ownership, according to the document.

West told the CN&R that the project was one plan discussed with county staff, but it has since changed “substantially.” Any potential projects for the site remain in flux, he said, and no formal applications have been submitted to the county for consideration or approval.

Chuck Thistlewaite, planning division manager for Butte County, confirmed that any future planned development at Tuscan Ridge would undergo a Planning Commission review and final consideration by the Board of Supervisors.

West said he is exploring housing opportunities at Tuscan Ridge because of the local housing crunch that has been exacerbated by the Camp Fire. He added, however, that market studies must still be conducted, and any potential development plans likely are a year off. Meanwhile, he also confirmed that Tuscan Ridge has been put up for sale. An online listing pegs the property at $60 million.

“I’m 90 years old,” West said, “and I probably won’t live to see it developed.”

He also addressed the concerns regarding the use of public money funding future private development on the site. The wastewater treatment facility was paid for by Tuscan Ridge’s ownership, West said, and any gravel roads constructed there likely would need to be torn up for future construction.

According to documents obtained by the CN&R through a state Public Records Act request, permits and a nine-month lease at Tuscan Ridge for state debris-removal contractor ECC Constructors was estimated at $2.2 million, a cost that took into account parking for more than 1,000 dump trucks and vehicles.

For Ritter, the issue is where, how and what type of housing should be rebuilt in the wake of the Camp Fire. She said she is concerned about a possible drastic uptick in the number of proposed housing units at Tuscan Ridge that may or may not fit the community’s needs.

It appears Tuscan Ridge is preparing for a large development before submitting formal documents to the county for consideration, Ritter said, possibly setting the stage for an approval process that could be welcomed without fully understanding the ramifications of building in the foothills between Chico and Paradise.

“What are the environmental impacts, right?” Ritter said. “What are we paving over that we thought was going to be fields? I don’t know what areas were surveyed. I don’t know what areas the original … houses were going to be.”

The supervisor added: “We can’t relax. We need to stay vigilant … because if we aren’t paying attention and we are not vigilant, things are going to get just railroaded through.”