Bidwell Ranch’s new life
Plans under way to turn controversial parcel into money-making mitigation bank
Like the rest of Northern California, the most controversial piece of land in Chico is thirsty these days. It needs rain—lots of it.
That land is known as Bidwell Ranch, after the name given to the last subdivision proposed for it, in the mid-1990s. Today it’s a fenced-off 750-acre field of windswept golden grass, green plants and rare vernal pools, though after an unseasonably dry January one needs a bit of imagination to see the wetlands.
Dan Efseaff, a restoration ecologist with River Partners, a nonprofit Chico-based habitat-restoration agency, is thinking about those vernal pools a lot lately. In his Vallombrosa Avenue office, the walls are covered with maps showing the conservation and mitigation bank he is developing for the city-owned property, as well as pictures of several of the animals living on the 750 acres.
Efseaff and River Partners are the latest players in one of the longest-standing disagreements in modern Chico history: whether to allow development on this piece of land located just north of Wildwood Avenue, at the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park. River Partners’ involvement with the property hasn’t entirely eliminated the possibility that the land, or at least part of it, may someday be developed, but it certainly makes it less likely.
That’s because about two-thirds of the parcel, or some 500 acres, is suitable for use in a mitigation bank—that is, it contains endangered habitat and species. Once contracts are signed allocating “mitigation credits” for the land, it will be permanently off limits for development.
Chico City Councilman Scott Gruendl, a strong supporter of the concept, said the bank would help the city both by providing mitigation for projects, such as the anticipated westward expansion of the Chico Municipal Airport, and by selling mitigation credits to local developers to generate money.
Asked if this was the last word on the land, however, he replied that it wasn’t. Not all of the land is suitable for a conservation bank, and that land may still be rezonable, although it would be more difficult, he explained.
Some history might be helpful here:
When the Butte County Board of Supervisors agreed, in the early 1980s, to establish a so-called “Greenline” on Chico’s west side to protect prime farm land from urban development, the idea was that Chico would grow to the east, onto the rocky, lava-capped land there.
One of the biggest eastside projects the City Council approved was Rancho Arroyo, a 2,900-unit subdivision to be placed on the 750-acre site under discussion here. That approval was turned aside in a 1988 referendum, however.
Then it was realized that vernal pools are endangered habitat, and building on eastside land became more problematic.
In the mid-1990s, the Sacramento-based owner of the property returned with another, scaled-down proposal, Bidwell Ranch. It would have placed 1,500 units on the 250-acre section of the property with few vernal pools, donated 200 acres to Bidwell Park and left the remaining land in open space.
It too ran into public resistance, however, and in 1996 the city, facing a possible lawsuit from the developer, purchased the property for $4 million.
Since then, there has been disagreement about what to do with the land. Liberals have sought to keep it as open space, while conservatives, including developers, have said at least some of the land should be sold to finance other city endeavors, particularly more neighborhood parks.
Last May, the City Council voted 4-3 to rezone the land as open space, but that didn’t stop conservative council candidates from making it an issue during the recent election. They lost, but that doesn’t mean that the issue is dead and gone. Chico has a history of alternating between liberal- and conservative-dominated councils, and a power shift could see a revived call for development on the land.
In the meantime, the land can have a useful purpose as a conservation and mitigation bank that allows it to remain as open space.
Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in depressions in shallow soils atop impermeable lava cap. When it rains, the pools fill and by their nature don’t drain. As spring goes on, the water slowly evaporates and the pools dry down, providing a home to a variety of plant and animal species adapted to the unique ecological conditions. These include a variety of wildflowers as well as small freshwater crustaceans called tadpole and fairy shrimp.
Largely because of development, only about 10 percent of California’s original vernal pools remain.
The concept behind mitigation banks is that vernal-pool areas are best preserved in large sections. Many projects encounter vernal pools, but it is difficult to preserve them by building around them.
Many developers have tried to do this, especially in the Sacramento area, Efseaff said, with disastrous results. The long-term survival rate of these “postage stamp"-sized areas is dismal. They generally fall through the cracks; people forget who’s managing them and don’t know who’s responsible for cleaning trash or if a fire breaks out, he explained.
In contrast, a large single area allows for direct management and serves to protect the pools far better. Developers faced with destroying vernal pools have the option of buying “mitigation credits” from these larger vernal-pool preserves.
The number of mitigation credits a bank holds is determined by “a lot of formulas and ratios on quality of habitat and how much has to be protected,” Efseaff said.
River Partners doesn’t yet know how many acres and credits the Bidwell Ranch land will yield. It does have a desk covered in boxes and binders of paper, and the answer is in those papers, but the numbers haven’t been put together yet.
Brendan Vieg, a senior planner with the city, is working with River Partners on this project. “The cost of mitigation credits continues to go up,” he said. “The intent in the end is that … the credits sold would offset the costs of the property and provide a return to the city.”
The city has been criticized for paying millions of dollars for the property and then fencing it off to the public. Eventually it will be opened, Efseaff said, though visitors won’t see much in the way of improvements. He would like a trail running around the pools, he said, and tours are available even now by appointment.
But the goal is to preserve the endangered wetlands habitat and species, which means public uses must be limited somewhat.
Creating a conservation and mitigation bank is a big effort that involves the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game. “I believe the agencies are very supportive of the overall effort,” Vieg said.
The first public meeting on the project will be held in early March.