This week the City Council grabbed the baton from the outstretched hand of the Planning Commission and began the next lap on the thorny issue of growth in Chico. More specifically, how and where are new homes to be built in our fair town? Do we expand our horizons and start creeping away from the urban core, risking suburban sprawl? Or do we look for open lots within the city’s current sphere of influence and pack homes in there, adhering to the General Plan’s goal of establishing a compact urban form? Developers want to expand north as far as Meridian Road and south as far as Pentz Road. The ag-protecting Greenline discourages development to the west. Environmental restrictions—endangered species and vernal pools, the developers’ curse—hamper development to the east and into the foothills, once seen as the Promised Land for growth. Provided the growth rate stays about where it has over the past decade, averaging 1.6 percent, we should have enough land to support new housing until 2012, the last year targeted by the General Plan. Planning Director Kim Seidler explained that the responsible thing to do is to start planning now for where we will build once we run out of the currently available land.
“The amount of land is less important than the sequence of development and how the land is used,” Seidler said. He cautioned that “leapfrog” development leads to urban sprawl and inefficient use of public services. He also talked about the “vacancy factor,” which is acreage of additional land—the Planning Commission called for 15 percent—made available for development to counter those land owners who don’t want to develop and to create some market competition so the big property owners can’t drive up the price of developable property by building on only a bit at a time. City Manager Tom Lando warned that that could happen in Chico, where “land to be developed is in relatively few hands.” Infill is not as easy as it would seem, a few folks told the council. There’s a reason that land, which by definition is surrounded by development, is still vacant, said developer and land use planner R. John Anderson. He said he prefers to build on the edge of town where there are fewer obstacles, including the dreaded NIMBY—neighbors who want nothing built near them. “Anybody who tells you it’s cheaper to build infill has never done it,” he said. Anderson, who is refreshingly honest and direct, suggested the city offer some sort of incentive for infill projects.
Planning Commissioner Kirk Monfort said the only way to make housing more affordable is to open up great tracts of land for development. But then, he pointed out, Chico loses the charm that makes people want to live here and becomes another Central Valley sprawlopolis like Modesto or Bakersfield. "The only need we should consider is how can we provide shelter for people," he said. It is not the city’s responsibility, he argued, to maintain a robust local housing market in order to keep developers happy. "The only reason we think we can solve the housing crunch is because we look out across the valley and see a lot of vacant land." The council will take up the issue of growth again on Nov. 27.