Cactus Avenue stalemate

Tony Symmes sat on a bench in the lobby of the Chico City Council Chambers, wearing a look of fatigued frustration. Just over three hours earlier, the council had opened discussion of an appeal regarding Symmes’ proposed Wildwood Estates on the east side of town. But at 10:10 p.m. Tuesday night (Aug. 15), he found himself going back to the drawing board—in this case, a yellow legal pad.

Huddled with a half-dozen residents of Cactus Avenue and Albion Court, Symmes sketched a rough new plan for the 36-acre project northeast of Pleasant Valley High School. He reduced the number of units and increased the size of some lots. The neighbors thanked him for consulting with them, then headed out the front door, awaiting the new subdivision map Symmes said he will slide under their doors early next week.

Wildwood Estates would cover a parcel of undeveloped land abutting Cactus Avenue and Albion Court as well as Eaton Road. Residents describe it as rural, “on the urban edge"—and indeed, apart from some lots under development in the middle of the block, Cactus shows few signs of change in decades and offers unobstructed views of open space and the foothills. Symmes planned to build 216 residences, ranging from duplexes and row houses to larger homes.

The impetus for the impromptu session came from the council, which voted 6-0 to table an appeal of the Planning Commission’s approval of the project until Oct. 3. (Councilwoman Ann Schwab was absent.)

That followed a lengthy, pointed debate in which the public hearing opened, closed, reopened, temporarily closed and temporarily reopened. During the ebb-and-flow portion, Mayor Scott Gruendl invited Symmes, neighborhood resident Liz Mosher and environmental activist John Merz to step up to the lectern and work toward a compromise.

Councilman Andy Holcombe called this “a bad idea,” and Gruendl soon came to the same conclusion. “We’re falling into a situation where we’re doing planning in the middle of the night,” he said, referring to his earlier observation that the project got initial Planning Commission approval well after midnight.

Thus came about the motion to continue the hearing after city staff facilitated a meeting between the developer, the neighbors and other concerned parties. And thus came about the lobby sketch, a product of momentum from what Symmes afterward called “planning at the podium.”

The appeal focuses on two prime concerns: protecting the character of the neighborhood in accordance with the city’s General Plan and protecting wetlands in accordance with environmental regulations.

The neighborhood element brought housing density into the discussion, and soon councilmembers were consulting project schematics and suggesting changes—almost as if they were in a Planning Commission meeting. Their recommendations came at the request of Planning Director Kim Seidler, who sensed the sentiments against the project as approved and sought to find out what would be acceptable.

After Councilman Steve Bertagna asked about shifting some high-density lots from one area to another, Symmes responded from his back-row seat, “It doesn’t meet SD7 [zoning]. You guys are making up new rules.”

Later, seated in front of his development’s future neighbors, Symmes addressed the density issue. There will be fewer houses, he said—but “now we’re back doing a normal subdivision, and the prices will go up,” nullifying the notion of offering homes under $250,000.

He will get feedback from the neighborhood, then submit his revised map to the city. Public discussion will resume. Then, in seven weeks’ time, the Council will retread familiar ground and decide whether the General Plan’s call for affordable housing outweighs its call to preserve a neighborhood’s way of life. Drink a lot of coffee on Oct. 3—it could be another late night.