Concept would develop some of the property and raise money for parks
Bob Best believes he knows what’s best for Bidwell Ranch.
Best, a retired financial analyst for Lockheed, suggests the city consider selling off part of the property to developers and use the money to help pay the cost of the city’s future neighborhood parks and recreation facilities, estimated at about $43 million.
Best first brought up the idea more than a year ago.
“Until now,” he wrote in a letter to this paper, “there has been an emotional outpouring, conjecture and opinions, but no real dialogue.”
He says, based on conversations he’s had with developers, the land could sell for as much as $50,000 per acre, netting the city $20 million—assuming you subtract the city’s cost for the original purchase, about $4 million, and assuming the city pays for a bridge needed to span the Sycamore diversion channel to reach the developable property, as well as for an environmental-impact report.
Best would like to see the idea put before the voters.
“We’ve turned the corner on this,” Best said. “Now at least this thing is getting a hearing” when it comes before the City Council in October.
He said he thinks the council will probably split on the matter and then pass it on to the new, post-election council.
“My point is to get this thing out before the people,” he said. “They say we’ve done it before, but that was previous ballot measures in ‘86 and ‘88 that did not address this issue.”
And the councilmembers opposed to the open-space zoning may very well agree with Best about putting something like this before the voters.
Hilary Locke, a member of a citizens’ group fighting any development on Bidwell Ranch, thinks Best is forcing the issue.
“For one thing, it sets up this false choice that we have to choose between open space and city parks, and we know we need city parks,” she said. “The city needs to come up with better ways to fund them.”
There is some question that the land is worth as much as Best thinks because it is still a long way from being developable.
“This development has incredible improvement hurdles,” said City Manager Tom Lando. “It is across a very big diversion channel and outside the grid for everything, so a developer would have a very high burden of public improvements to bring to this site, even today.”
“There is not a black-and-white answer to the question the community is debating,” Lando said. “This property does have value if the city were to entitle the property, and the value would be substantial. Possible net return to the city could be in the $10 to $15 million range.”
But does the city want to pay for the entitlement process so a developer can come in and build?
“If council wants to get market value for the property, the city would have to go through the entitlement process, the EIR, some type of design, and basically be prepared to spend a half-million-plus to do that,” Lando said.
“If the decision is made to proceed,” he added, “we still have a group of folks who are adamantly opposed, which gets back to my personal belief: I don’t think any substantial development potential really exists on that property.”
Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan, who is not running for re-election, also has doubts.
”Put aside all those valid arguments on both sides,” he said. “The practical hard reality of the property is that no developer in his or her right mind would want to buy the property at a high price without some guarantee that he or she would be able to develop the property,” Nguyen-Tan said.
He thinks the city would have to pay as much as $1 million to ready the land for development with planning and environmental studies. “That means the city would bear the entire upfront costs on a new environmental review and planning studies to prepare land to sell for development that would most likely be referendumed by the community and, based on the community’s track record, rejected.
“Find me a developer who’s willing to purchase parts of Bidwell Ranch without entitlement and I’ll listen, because that means the private developer is the one bearing the risk, not the city.”
Local developer Greg Webb said he is not very knowledgeable about the existing infrastructure on the property but knows that a bridge must be built
“I don’t think a developer with any knowledge of Chico would touch that property without some sort of guarantee [that it could be developed],” said Webb.—Tom Gascoyne