Bein’ green

After 19 years Chico’s Greenline faces some opposition, but not much

BOXED IN <br>Farmer Wally Roney says that while he supports “the idea” of the Greenline, he feels trapped by the commercial buildings and homes surrounding his orchard.

Farmer Wally Roney says that while he supports “the idea” of the Greenline, he feels trapped by the commercial buildings and homes surrounding his orchard.

photo by Tom Angel

Farm facts: By last count, there are 1,942 farms in Butte County, with a total of 404,166 acres of farmland. The average farm size is 208 acres.

There’s a bit of a late-summer chill in the morning air as Wally Roney strides through his almond orchard picking up some of the debris that litters it. There are cigarette butts and soda cans, a few beer bottles and an old tire. Motorcycle tracks zip through the shady, soft soil and appear to have broken several sprinkler heads. It’s like this almost every morning, Roney says with a sigh.

“Every time I come out here, I’m picking stuff up,” he says. “It’s not right.”

Roney’s main problem is location, he says. His orchard sits smack-dab between a run-down motel and a used-car lot on Highway 32 just past the Chico city limit sign. Behind him, he points out, is a small subdivision, and whizzing in front of him is one of the main roads into Chico.

“I’m all boxed in here,” he says. “And I can’t do anything about it.”

And he’s right—he can’t do anything about it. His 24-acre orchard hasn’t turned a profit in almost 20 years, and the land is plagued with problems related to its location, Roney says. When his great-grandfather farmed this land, he says, other orchards surrounded it, and the rich soil made for profitable harvests.

But that was then, and now Roney said he’s farming the land only for the sentimental value it holds.

He can’t do anything about it because he is one of the few Butte County farmers who own property on the agriculture side of the Greenline that is virtually hemmed in by non-ag land. The Greenline surrounds much of west and southwest Chico and requires that farmland—mainly orchards—behind the line be permanently zoned for agricultural uses.

For Roney, that means that while his neighbors on the urban side of the line long ago made big profits selling their prime orchards to developers, he’s forbidden to do so by county zoning laws. That makes him a little angry. He points out that if he were able to sell the land to a developer, it would be worth upward of $90,000 an acre. However, because he can sell it only as an unprofitable orchard, he estimates that he’d be lucky to get $5,000 an acre for it.

“Who would be dumb enough to buy it as it is?” he asks. “The way I see it, [the county] took my property rights away with the Greenline. I can’t use my land the way I want to, but I still have to pay the same in property taxes. Does that sound right to you?”

LINE OF GREEN <br>The Greenline roughly follows the Chico city limits on the south and west sides of town. The land to the north and east of town historically hasn’t been farmland (and isn’t as fertile as southwest Chico), so the Greenline doesn’t extend there.

But the way Supervisor Jane Dolan sees it, the Greenline helps maintain property values for all of Chico. It’s the Greenline, she notes, that’s helped keep Chico from experiencing the kind of urban sprawl that’s plagued so many other fast-growing cities.

Driving along parts of the Greenline, Dolan seems almost maternal when as she points out the shady, quiet neighborhoods it has helped nurture and protect. And it shows—the neighborhoods that border the Greenline in south and southwest Chico are well planned and popular among homeowners, due in part to the Greenline’s permanent buffer against commercial development.

Dolan, a Chico native, ran for a supervisor’s seat in 1978 mainly because, she says, “I didn’t want to see Chico become another San Jose. We were growing so fast at that time, and I was seeing orchards disappearing all over the place.”

Her enthusiasm for restricting development didn’t sit well with her colleagues on the board, though. At the time, the board gave almost rubber-stamp approval to almost every developer who applied to build in the county, she says. While a survey showed that a full 68 percent of Chico residents supported her Greenline proposal, the board “seemed to feel as if land use restrictions weren’t a valid use for county government. I felt they were wrong.”

So, along with a broad-based coalition of community activists, she managed to hammer out what eventually became the Greenline. After considerable controversy, the supervisors, bowing to community pressure, approved it in 1982 by a 3-2 vote, but not without a fair amount of grumbling.

“I got comments like, ‘Are you done with your dog and pony show now?'” Dolan remembered. “And I just said, ‘I think you mean my almond and walnut show.'”

Most farmers in Butte County support the Greenline, according to the Butte County Farm Bureau, and rightly so. It gives stability to farmland, along with maintaining the rural agricultural origins of the area, even while it becomes more and more populated.

Take almond farmer Jeff Cripe, a former member of the Farm Bureau’s board of directors. He said that while the Greenline might make life “difficult” for a few farmers who have land on the border, it is a necessary evil.

“Ag is and always has been the key industry in Butte County,” said Cripe, who farms 350 acres of land, some of it along the Greenline. “It’s the right thing that we should want to protect that from becoming history.”

Even after almost 19 years, the Greenline still hasn’t changed from its original form. In fact, while Dolan said she’s heard “rumors” about a few people who would like to see it changed, she has yet to receive an application from anyone asking that it be modified. That’s something that Dolan seems proud of.

“When you’re making these land use plans, you have to think like 20 and 30 years down the road," she said. "It’s all so long term … and I’m proud of the way that [the Greenline] has protected what I feel is an important part of this community—ag."