Battle over the bridge

What’s the big deal with the Otterson Drive project, anyway?

There are at least two semi-permanent encampments on the Thomasson property like the one pictured here. In the past, the Thomassons have had the property bulldozed to remove such camps. They say if they don’t sell the property to the city, they will develop some sort of commercial project like a mini-warehouse facility.

There are at least two semi-permanent encampments on the Thomasson property like the one pictured here. In the past, the Thomassons have had the property bulldozed to remove such camps. They say if they don’t sell the property to the city, they will develop some sort of commercial project like a mini-warehouse facility.

Photo by Tom Angel

The skirmish over the proposed Otterson Drive road project is symptomatic of something far greater, something that escapes easy definition but is clearly there, recognizable to anyone who’s lived in this town for any duration of time. It is a tension and struggle based upon a clash of core values between decent people; it’s pavement vs. plants, growth vs. open space, economic development vs. personal growth. The Chamber of Commerce vs. the Butte Environmental Council.

With that in mind, one recent Saturday morning I joined CN&R photographer Tom Angel, KZFR radio’s Eco Talk host Randy Larsen, his dog Stickeen and my 7-year-old son Dugan on a hike onto the property where the Otterson Drive road extension and bridge would be built, connecting the Hegan Lane Industrial Park to the intersection at South Park Avenue and the Midway. I wanted to see first-hand what all the hubbub was about.

Was this land truly pristine, as the anti-bridge people said, or had it been degraded by homeless squatters and littered with illegally dumped trash, as the pro-bridge folk charged?

We met at 8 a.m. and parked in the lot next to Butte Concrete Studio, a statuary supply yard that sits just north of Comanche Creek and west of the Midway. The morning sun was rising in a crisp blue sky, giving a strong hint of the hot day to come.

We walked south across the bridge on the Midway that spans Comanche Creek and turned west onto the property, past some low shrubs, where we almost immediately stumbled upon about 10 bright-blue plastic garbage bags, filled, twisted and tied where someone had recently—and illegally—dumped them.

As we walked deeper onto the property, we could hear the constant low hum of the Pacific Gas & Electric substation, which sits on land once part of a large hog farm owned by the Thomasson family, whose estate now owns the land upon which we were hiking. Farther to the south is the Kinder-Morgan tank farm, also once part of the hog farm and now suspected to be one source of the petroleum sludge possibly tainting the plumes beneath the ground under our feet.

Today all that’s left of what was once called the Thomasson South Ranch are the 14 acres that envelop the creek from the Midway to just past where Otterson Drive dead-ends in the business park. The Thomassons, Richard and Darlene, want to sell the property or develop it, which they say they will do should Measure A fail and the city not purchase the land.

As we walked, the drone from the substation faded, replaced by the pleasant gurgling and splashing sounds of the creek. We were exposed to occasional glimpses of the waterway, with lush areas of towering irises, lilies, oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores. We could hear birds—at least 30 species have been observed here—and saw a few large ones swooping between branches of the trees. Closer to the water we came across black caterpillars with bright orange markings.

The environmental-impact report for the project mentions the presence of wood ducks, river otters, ring-necked pheasants, pond turtles and sandhill cranes. How they will be affected is not clear. The EIR does say, however, that extension of the road and construction of the bridge at its prescribed location would “contribute to the ongoing loss of natural undisturbed open space in the region, increase human intrusion and activity levels in proximity to habitat areas. Additionally, the project would contribute to the disturbance of natural riparian and oak woodland habitat, which are in rapid decline throughout California.”

We came upon a pile of refuse that looked like an old out-building of some sort—possibly a silo, as a round concrete foundation was clearly visible. Twisted strips of corrugated metal were strewn next to the foundation, as was rusted metal machinery. Small young trees have grown up through the debris. I later learned from the Thomassons’ son-in-law, Eric Behring, that the rubble, featured in a Pro-Measure A mailer in a color photo and described as “illegal dumping,” was indeed an old corn silo.

The silo, Behring explained, was “collapsed” a few years ago to keep squatters and vagrants from staying in it or stripping its interior for firewood.

“They were inhabited by trespassers, so they took them down,” he explained. “They were grain silos, barns and whatnot where they would give the hogs feed and grain.”

We veered off the old railroad right-of-way through the property and headed toward the sounds of the creek. This made for rough walking, and some of us had to stop occasionally to take off our shoes and pull stickers from our socks. Along the way, we came across old canvas and plastic tarps, piles of discarded clothes and crushed cans. We saw the remains of an old tree house perhaps 25 feet up in a cottonwood tree.

Twice we crossed paths with others, one man walking, a second riding a bicycle. They were both 45 to 50 years old, longhaired and pleasant, and they nodded in silent greeting. They moved briskly, as if with a destination in mind, which we guessed was most likely not the Hegan Lane Industrial Park. We came upon some creekside encampments, one of which was fairly established with wooden steps and a railing leading down to a tent, a table area with a Coleman stove and a stack of reading material. It was straight from the pages of a John Steinbeck novel. I felt I was invading someone’s privacy.

Stickeen didn’t hesitate to investigate campsites, however, and Larsen would call to the huge yellow Labrador mix, cautioning him to keep close. The dog, being a Lab, could find his way to the creek with much more grace and style than the rest of us could and had jumped in three or four times before we reached the water.

When we finally made it, we found ourselves close to where the bridge would be built. Larsen, searching for a spot from which he could record his weekly radio show, waded out to the middle of the creek and found a seat on a pile of branches and vegetation that had snagged in place, creating small rapids on both sides. Also caught in the impromptu barrier was an upside-down yellow Food-4-Less shopping cart and the broken-off head of a paddle. Submerged nearby were a few car tires.

The water was wonderfully cold as it rushed around our feet.

Larsen, who served as a panel member speaking against the project in a forum a few months back, sees Measure A as a wake-up call to local progressives.

“If we’d have taken care of things when we voted for council last time, we wouldn’t have to deal with this now,” he offered.

Two of the Chico City Councilmembers in favor of the bridge—Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl—were elected last year.

We stayed for a while, then made our way back to the Midway. There we came across Bob, the man who for 15 years has owned and operated the Butte Concrete Studio, which sits just west of the Park Avenue/Midway intersection. The studio is open only on Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., offering gray concrete, dwarfs, water fountains, tables and other lawn ornaments. Should Measure A pass, it will have to move elsewhere.

Bob eyed us with suspicion, said he didn’t like our paper, didn’t want to render his last name and wanted nothing to do with our story. We asked him about the Cleveland Indians shirt he was wearing, and he told us he’s no Tribe fan, that he just got a “good deal” on the shirt.

But then he went on to tell us he had nothing but high praise for the Thomassons, who had never raised his $100-per-month rent—first arranged by Richard Thomasson’s late father Harold—in the 15 years he’d been there.

“They should be able to do whatever they want because it is their property,” Bob said.

He told us that he taught economics at Butte College and wouldn’t be losing much. But he also noted that John Sterle, who runs A-1 Fencing next to the concrete studio, would either have to relocate his shop or retire should the project be built. (Sterle has paid the Thomasson’s $250 a month since he’s been there, said Behring.)

Personally, Bob said, he didn’t care if the project was built; however, as an economist he did think there were more pressing traffic problems elsewhere in town where the money could do more good.

A few days later photographer Angel and I returned to try to talk with Sterle. I’d tried the number in the phone book, but it had been disconnected. We talked to a worker who was just leaving. He told us Sterle had disconnected his cell phone number as well.

From there we drove to the business park and stopped in at Candi’s Deli, which caters to the business park employees, offering breakfast, lunch and even Friday happy hour. Candi’s has a corrugated-metal motif, reflecting the industrial-building nature of the businesses it serves. But it is also a sports bar with a framed red jersey of 49er football hero Jerry Rice, a couple of televisions tuned to auto racing on this day, team photos of the Durham High girls’ basketball team framed and hanging on a wall and a number of race car posters. Above the restroom entrance is a green road sign the says, “Elvis Presley Blvd.”

I walked out onto the patio, where it must have been 98 degrees, and asked the two women there if they worked in the park.

“No,” one said, “I’m here from Durham.”

“I just like Candi,” said the other as she walked past me into the air-conditioned store.

Candi was Candi Fleming, who’d owned the deli for two years. On her counter she had some Measure A literature, including a letter from Craig Alger, owner of a Hegan Lane Industrial Park company called V-Tech and a big promoter of Measure A.

The letter, dated April 17, said the Otterson extension and bridge were important and that the pro-Measure A folks were working hard to get the word out. But getting the word out took money, the letter lamented, and the coalition needed a lot more.

“Could you give a donation and ask your employees to give a small donation?” Alger asked. Fleming has seven employees.

“I have not had one person come in and say they would not support the project,” she told me.

A few days later I attended the “Tour for the Truth on Measure A Barbeque,” put on by pro-Measure A people to explain their side. It was held north of the creek just beyond an open field behind the fence company and the statuary studio. The field served as the parking lot, which at around 6 p.m. hosted about 30 vehicles, with a 2­1 ratio of SUVs to Benzes and BMWs.

There was a table of brochures explaining the benefits of Measure A. Next to it were a few tripods holding aerial photos of the creek and business park and a drawing of plans for a mini storage facility that could very well occupy the land upon which we were standing should Measure A fail and the Thomassons decide to develop the property.

Bill Brouhard, business partner with park owner Doug Guillon, saw me taking photos of the get-together. He proceeded to tell me that the economic development sure to follow the installation of the bridge would benefit all of Chico with increased employment and elevated payrolls that come with manufacturing jobs. Without the bridge, the park would develop, he conceded, but rather than light industry and its associated higher-quality employment, the park would become home to warehouses, and a golden opportunity would be missed.

Brouhard was relentless in his pitch. That he believes in this project is abundantly evident. At one point, city Planning Commissioner Jolene Francis, another strong supporter of A, walked up, placed a hand on Brouhard’s shoulder and said, “Take a breath, Bill.”

Brouhard smiled and shook his head. As the sun dipped below the stately oak trees and cast a lengthening shadow over the Tour for Truth barbeque, I walked away with camera in hand and a head full of information, more than I ever wanted to know about Measure A.

Chicoans of every description want to preserve and encourage what they call "quality of life." Where they differ is in the way they define this vague goal and, by design, the best way to get there. Whether it’s Measure A, where to build a new high school, Bidwell Ranch or Rancho Arroyo doesn’t matter. The turf changes, but the struggle remains the same. And as long as there are people who in their minds have noble intentions about this town and its future, the battle will rage. Once enough folks stop paying attention and allow Chico to sprawl beyond control, the battle will be lost for both sides.