Bidwell Park gets “red flag” alert system

Commission will now be alerted about new developments near Bidwell Park

The series of mistakes that led to the all-too-visible and much lamented presence of houses along the south rim of Upper Bidwell Park has made city officials more watchful about projects proposed near the park.

Most recently, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission asked the City Council to designate a “sphere of influence” surrounding the park such that any construction proposed within it would be brought to the commission’s attention.

A request before the council at Tuesday’s meeting (Feb. 6) was to create a 1,000-foot sphere of influence from the park boundaries outward. Any project proposed within that sphere would be “red flagged” for the commission’s consideration as to its effects on the “experiential value” of the park.

General Services Director Dennis Beardsley explained that the commission was interested in possible projects on land on both sides of Upper and Middle Park, much of which is in the county. “This would give the city more say in that regard,” he said.

Several of the councilmembers questioned the 1,000-foot figure, however. To them it seemed arbitrary, as if picked out of the blue. “Why a thousand feet?” Councilwoman Mary Flynn asked.

“It’s subjective,” Beardsley responded, acknowledging that it was “a nice round number. It seemed like a reasonable distance.”

Councilman Steve Bertagna was concerned that the commission’s oversight would be duplicative. “We have two bodies [Planning Commission and City Council] overseeing projects already; now we’ll have a third involved, looking at subjective information, at policy issues. I’m concerned that it will turn into just another opportunity to politicize things. What are we trying to accomplish?”

Then Bertagna answered his own question: “Prevent what happened on the rim from happening again, I suppose.”

Councilwoman Ann Schwab wasn’t at all concerned about duplication. “Bidwell Park is so important to this community that I don’t care if we have a hundred opportunities for comment,” she stated.

Several citizens spoke in favor of the policy, but one of them, veteran park watchdog Randy Abbott, said he thought it was “weak, very weak.” It focused too much on the viewshed, he explained, and not enough on such issues as habitats, invasive uses and other impacts on the park.

In response, Mayor Andy Holcombe tried to clarify the issue before the council. “I think people are talking about two different things,” he said. “This is a procedural item that provides the commission with a red-flag alert so it can comment on projects. We need to flesh out code requirements at another time. Objective, quantitative measurements are not in place yet. They’re being done as part of the Master Management Plan for Bidwell Park, but it’s not finished yet.”

“Doesn’t the park commission have a right to comment now?” Councilman Larry Wahl asked. “We don’t need a specialized policy to do that.”

“I have to respectfully disagree,” Flynn replied. “Had a process like this been in place however many years ago, those houses might not be there now.”

Developer Bill Brouhard, a co-owner of a Canyon Oaks subdivision parcel that is on the canyon rim north of the current visible houses, said he had been working with the park commission for two years and intended to keep doing so. He encouraged adoption of the new policy, saying, “For us it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

At this point Gruendl proposed that, rather than a 1,000-foot line, the sphere of influence include the entire watershed of Big Chico Creek up to the canyon rims on both sides. That seemed to make more sense to the councilmembers, but they wanted to see what it looked like on a map.

A conceptual motion to approve that idea passed 6-1, with Councilman Tom Nickell dissenting after his effort to insert tougher language was rebuffed.