Chico sticking to Greenline

City Council makes protecting ag land a general-plan priority

“You don’t defend a line by moving it.” That was Jane Dolan’s take on a particular bone of contention during the Chico City Council’s special session Monday night (Nov. 17). Council members were deliberating which areas in and around the city should be developed over the next two decades, and that brought them smack up against the agricultural-land boundary she has championed the past two decades.

Would the city’s general plan include crossing the Greenline? Dolan feared it might, particularly after the opening salvo over 40 acres south of town. So the Butte County supervisor bristled a bit as she returned to council chambers and took an up-front seat in the audience.

“It’s even more important now than in ‘82,” she said, referring to the year the line was drawn.

An hour later, she was in a much better mood. The council voted to target some key areas for development—Diamond Match, North Chico, South Entler, Doe Mill/Honey Run, Bell/Muir—but none on county-cordoned ag land.

“I think they made some good decisions tonight,” Dolan reflected as the final few of the 40-some attendees passed by in the lobby. “And they certainly kept me in suspense right up to the voting.

“Despite [questioning] why the Greenline was drawn this way or that way, it was pretty much reflective of city-county discussions. It would have been so disheartening to me if after all these years of trying to get the county to understand [the importance of] not developing ag land, the city did.”

For a few moments, it seemed the city just might. The litmus test was the Estes Special Planning Area, property bounded on the west by the railroad tracks and on the south by Comanche Creek. It’s where Emily Alma has her Riparia enclave and GRUB grows produce for its CSA (community-supported agriculture).

City staff and the Planning Commission recommended setting aside the land as an urban reserve until other places got developed and it was needed; then, Estes would contain a mix of high-density residences, industrial/office/mixed-use properties, parkland and creekside greenways.

General-plan consultant Pam Johns barely finished explaining the rationale—that the Planning Commission determined that, if the city were to consider broaching the Greenline, this would be the most viable place—when Tom Nickell moved to keep it as is and newly re-elected Ann Schwab seconded his motion.

“This is prime agricultural land,” Schwab said. Changing the Greenline “is not a viable option.”

Steve Bertagna, completing his third and final term, declared that “if that’s viable ag land, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.” He called the Greenline “gerrymandered” at that spot and said drawing it all along the railroad tracks “makes it a stronger, more defensible line, not less.”

Fellow conservative Larry Wahl agreed. Progressive Mayor Andy Holcombe, also fresh off a successful election, didn’t: “Gerrymandered or not, it’s saved a very valuable ag area.” Mary Flynn drew supportive laughs when she stated, “I don’t think it’s a good reason to move it just because the line would look straighter.”

Her certainty wavered a few minutes later, though. Considering Estes in relation to the neighboring Diamond Match area, which the council had approved for a variety of commercial and residential uses, she wondered, “Are we making good choices when we’re making a decision one way on one side and on the other side a wholly different use?”

“In my opinion,” Bertagna responded, “your last comments make more sense than some of your previous ones.”

In the end, though, Flynn voted along with her progressive colleagues in a 5-2 decision that drew applause from a GRUB member and smiles from Alma and Dolan.

In the back row, a voice called out, “Thanks, Jane.”

Estes may have been the most dramatic deliberation, but it was just one of 32 the council conducted over 3 1/2 hours. All 15 “opportunity sites” endorsed by the Planning Commission were approved for the Preferred Land Use Alternative, and the council reluctantly took chunks of land with environmental constraints—west of the airport and along Bruce Road—off the books unless further review determines any parts of them are viable.

Here’s what was decided for some notable locations.

Downtown: The council approved a plan on which the Downtown Ad Hoc Committee signed off, which would zone downtown as a series of subdistricts rather than with a blanket designation. The idea is to increase office uses and offer transitions to surrounding neighborhoods—a concept that came up repeatedly during the meeting.

Chico Nut: After city planner Brendan Vieg explained that the owner plans to keep his plant going “over the life of the general plan,” the council decided this property on the Esplanade will retain its current use, manufacturing and warehousing, with some commercial mixed use.

Eaton Road: The council majority came to a different conclusion than city staff by designating a parcel northeast of Highway 99 as neighborhood commercial, rather than medium-high-density residential.

Diamond Match SPA: For the 150-acre special planning area surrounding the old Diamond Match factory, the council chose a conceptual plan to include a mix of business uses, parkland and a range of medium- and low-density residences.

South Entler SPA: These 300 acres south of town along Highway 99 include 75 acres given a preliminary designation of “regional commercial” so the owner could move forward with development plans. Since Monday’s vote wasn’t a binding rezone, the council essentially, in the words of Holcombe, gave permission to “have at it, at your own risk.”

Bell-Muir SPA: At the outset, Schwab made a point of stating, “While many people think this area is outside the Greenline, it was never formally adopted by the Board of Supervisors and was declared a study area for growth in 1982. If the city followed suit, “it wouldn’t be breaking the Greenline.” No one disputed this clarification, and the council voted unanimously to include Bell-Muir in the general plan, defined (as per the county) as south of Bell and Muir roads.

Mud Creek SPA: No ambiguity here—with this property clearly delineated as outside the Greenline, the five progressives voted not to consider Mud Creek, over the dissenting votes of the two conservatives.

Doe Mill/Honey Run: The so-called Schuster property east of town drew near-unanimous approval for consideration, including independent environmental review. The lone dissenter: Schwab, who has championed a “gold line” in that area to protect foothills.

Nance Canyon: Larry Wahl was the voice in the wilderness calling for the council to agree to the landowner’s request to include the property along Highway 99, north of the Neal Road Landfill. Wahl’s motion died without a second, then his six colleagues voted to exclude Nance Canyon from the city’s plans.