Bidwell Ranch’s continuing saga

City Council takes another stab at solving old problem

This aerial view of Bidwell Ranch shows the extent of the property. Butte County meadowfoam is located almost exclusively on the northern third of the property.

This aerial view of Bidwell Ranch shows the extent of the property. Butte County meadowfoam is located almost exclusively on the northern third of the property.

Calling it “a yoke around our neck” and a frustrating “moving target,” members of the Chico City Council on Tuesday (July 7) once again, after more than 30 years of trying, sought to figure out what to do with Bidwell Ranch.

They’re trying to decide whether to go the (relatively) easy route and just add the 759 acres to Upper Bidwell Park, which Bidwell Ranch borders, or create a conservation and mitigation bank in order to generate funding for future maintenance of the land and recover some of the money the city has spent on it since the mid-1980s, including $7.2 million to purchase the land in 1997.

Bidwell Ranch is actually the name of one of the two development projects once proposed for the area. The first, the 2,994-unit Rancho Arroyo, was approved by the council but killed via a historic referendum in 1988. Bidwell Ranch was a scaled-down followup proposal (1,500 units) but succumbed to circumstances, including council members’ fear of another referendum and the bankruptcy of the company that owned the property. That’s when the council decided to purchase it.

Subsequent pressure to sell it to developers gradually waned as it became clear there were too many obstacles to development. In 2005 it was rezoned as permanent open space with limited public access, and the council voted to explore the feasibility of creating a conservation and mitigation bank.

Creation of such a bank would enable the city to sell mitigation credits to other entities, public or private, faced with the need to destroy protected vernal pools or meadowfoam plants to complete their projects. And, as Dan Efseaff, the city’s Park and Natural Resources manager, pointed out, a bank could also serve the city as an in-house source of credit when it undertakes such capital projects as the widening of Bruce Road.

Much of the work toward creating a plan was done by the Chico-based environmental group River Partners, to whom the city paid nearly $250,000 to do studies and draw up a plan. But, as Efseaff noted, agency submission guidelines and costs changed, the city had other priorities (it was in fiscal crisis), and the recession put development projects on hold. So Bidwell Ranch went on the back burner, until now.

The problem is that mitigation banks require a lot of up-front money (the figure of $1 million was mentioned) and must go through multiple agencies to be established. And, in the end, the credits may not sell. If they do sell, however, the city could end up making a substantial profit.

On the other hand, as Mayor Mark Sorensen put it, “I don’t think we have the time, money or expertise to create and manage a mitigation bank. It sounds more like a place for an RFP [request for proposal from a third party]. Or, as some have pointed out, just cut bait, put an end to this 10-year-long bad trip, and annex it to the park.”

That’s exactly what several speakers urged. Councilman Randall Stone agreed with them, as did Councilwoman Tami Ritter. Councilwoman Ann Schwab, however, thought the city would be foolish not to explore the feasibility of recovering some costs. Can we manage a mitigation bank? she asked. If so, great; if not, we should just let Bidwell Ranch “blend into the park,” she said.

City Manager Mark Orme courageously promised to come up with a proposal that will solve the Bidwell Ranch problem once and for all. If he succeeds, credit him with magical powers.

In other news: The council voted, 6-1, to amend its regulations of tobacco products to incorporate e-cigarettes. Their use will not be allowed within 20 feet of business doorways and outdoor cafés, as well as in certain city parks, including City Plaza. The vote was a victory for Moana Larsen and Natalie Chivichon, teenagers who as members of Kids Leading Everyone Against Nicotine (KLEAN) brought the issue before the council in April. They watched Tuesday as all the council members supported the amendments. The one dissent came from Andrew Coolidge, who lamented the gradual frittering away of individual rights. “It would be better to err on the side of freedom,” he said.

The council also voted, 4-3, to direct city staff to come up with a policy for dealing with the proliferation of alcohol vendors. According to state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Chico is so saturated with them that the council must issue a determination of “public convenience or necessity” pretty much every time someone new wants to sell booze. In fact, the council had issued two such PCNs earlier in the meeting.

Council members Stone, Ritter and Schwab dissented, saying they preferred to initiate a conditional-use-permit process for new alcohol establishments.

Finally, the council overturned, 4-3, with Schwab, Stone and Ritter dissenting, the Planning Commission’s denial of a drive-through window at Maui Wowi, a smoothies and coffee joint going in at the corner of Mangrove and Vallombrosa avenues. As Community Development Director Mark Wolfe explained, almost apologetically, city staff initially supported the proposal but eventually decided that safety issues—the possibility that cars could back up onto Mangrove—were too great to ignore. The council majority determined that, with certain conditions, the plan was safe.