Chico VW gets to expand

Whole City Council favors local business over neighborhood activists

The members of the Chico City Council’s liberal majority did some exhausting mental wrestling Tuesday night (Oct. 21), two weeks before Election Day, during their consideration of a proposal to expand the Chico Volkswagen dealership onto a neighboring lot.

They faced a tough choice: whether to support the Barber Neighborhood Association, which strongly opposed the expansion at the site of what its members called the “gateway” to their neighborhood, or to support the dealership’s owners, a local couple trying to build their business.

At issue was a request from Mark and Amy Abouzeid for a general-plan amendment and rezone that would enable them to use the former Foster’s Freeze property immediately to the west of their car dealership as an outdoor car lot. They also plan to use a lot just on the other, southern side of Little Chico Creek for employee parking.

The city Planning Commission had recommended, on a 4-2 vote, against the request, largely on the basis that the change was contrary to the policies and goals of the current general plan.

The issue had become a political hot potato that many in the business community saw as a test of the council’s oft-stated commitment to supporting local businesses. Neighborhood activists, on the other hand, saw it as a test of the council’s commitment to neighborhood planning and grassroots participation.

More than 30 people stepped forward to speak, about half on each side of the issue.

Residents of the Barber neighborhood, including several members of the Barber Neighborhood Association’s steering committee, were concerned about not only their “gateway,” but also the health of the creek, the possibility that the new zoning could lead to incompatible uses—a gas station was mentioned—and the integrity of the general plan.

Ken Fleming, who lives in the Avenues neighborhood, argued that auto dealerships did not further the goals of historic downtowns. “Other cities are moving them out,” he said.

But Mike Trolinder, who works as a consultant on downtown issues, said just the opposite—that auto sales had been “a part of the history of downtowns since cars were invented.” Chico VW is good for downtown, he continued, because it draws customers to the area, with the possibility that they might shop in other stores besides the dealership.

Opponents of the car lot preferred to see some kind of residential or mixed-use commercial/residential project on the site, but several speakers said that wasn’t feasible. They included local economic-development maven Bob Linscheid, who said the cost of building such a project would far exceed the revenues it could generate.

A number of speakers, several of them also residents of the Barber neighborhood, testified to the excellent job the Abouzeids had done turning the former Volpato Chrysler-Plymouth dealership into a sparkling, attractive feature at the corner of Ninth and Main streets.

Following the public speakers, Councilman Larry Wahl immediately moved to approve a resolution supporting the request. “This is the right project, with the right people, in the right place, at the right time,” he exhorted.

The motion included a 25-foot setback from the creek on the north side and a 25-foot dedication, or actual surrender, of land on the south side designed to protect the creekside greenway.

After Councilman Steve Bertagna heartily agreed with Wahl, it fell to Vice Mayor Ann Schwab, seated just to Bertagna’s right, to be the first member of the majority to give her take on the issue.

“It’s not as simple as Larry says,” she began. Saying she was conflicted, she noted that the sales-tax revenues the business would generate were “a huge plus.” She could see how the business added to “the vitality of downtown,” and that the expansion would be a “reuse of an underused property” that otherwise could sit there unused for years.

On the other hand, she was concerned about environmental issues. Most of all, she said, she couldn’t support the motion if it included placing a fence right next to the creek, as the Abouzeids had requested. She wanted the fencing to be outside the 25-foot setbacks on both sides.

Mayor Andy Holcombe noted that the resolution already called for the 25-foot fencing.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said she’d given the issue a lot of thought and that very morning had walked around the site. “Three years ago, I might have come down on a different side because I was acting out of my personal values,” she said. “But I was elected to do what’s best for the whole community.”

Chico VW, she said, was a “radical, huge improvement” over the Volpato site—and she thought it was “smart” and made “good sense” to have an auto dealer downtown. “Having this business at the south end is a magnet pulling business into the area,” she said.

And so it went, with Councilmen Tom Nickell and Scott Gruendl and Holcombe all speaking of the need to support local businesses and the quality of the Abouzeids’ current shop. Given the city’s budget problems and the national economic woes, “this is the wrong time to say no to a business,” Nickell said.

Gruendl noted that any creekside greenway along that section of Little Chico Creek was years in the future, but for now the setbacks “provide an opportunity for that.”

And Holcombe, saying he’d “probably disappoint some of his friends,” said he also supported the motion. General plans are meant to be changed occasionally, he argued.

The motion passed 7-0.

Afterwards, the CN&R asked Planning Commission Chairman Jon Luvaas what he thought of the vote. He was fine with it, he replied. He said he understood perfectly why the council took the action it did. The Planning Commission, he explained, enjoys the luxury of not having to consider economics, much less politics, in its decisions.