Commissioners say nay to rural development
With fires raging and energy costs soaring, they say yea to compact, centralized urban growth
Wildfires carry strong messages. So does $4-a-gallon gas.
One of those messages, apparently, is that building houses in the unincorporated areas of Butte County, far from urban services and jobs, has got to stop.
That was evident during the county Planning Commission’s two recent meetings to discuss the county’s update of its general plan—specifically, the land-use recommendations of its Citizens Advisory Committee. In those meetings, held on May 30 and June 13 (last Friday), the commissioners deviated several times from recommendations that would have allowed further growth, choosing instead to limit new development to areas contiguous to cities.
In doing so, they went against 30 years of policy under the current general plan, which has allowed almost anyone who owns a plot of land to build a house. The result has been virtually untrammeled growth in unincorporated areas, especially on the Upper Ridge, which has nearly 20,000 residents living among the pines without fire hydrants, and such places as Forest Ranch and Berry Creek.
As last week’s wildfires showed, those areas are terribly vulnerable. Virtually all of the 70-plus houses that burned down were in unincorporated areas, and the Humboldt Fire’s uphill burst was stopped only when it reached Paradise town limits.
Clearly, this was on the minds of the commissioners Friday, as they considered the recommended land-use alternatives for the Chico and Durham areas. Then, when commission Chairman Harrel Wilson, of Oroville, abruptly left the meeting after making a phone call, saying his house was in danger from fire, the message really hit home (Commissioner Fernando Marin, of Paradise, was absent for the entire meeting.)
One by one, the commissioners went over the areas that earlier had been designated for possible growth—the so-called “study areas"—and either accepted or refined the CAC’s recommendations. Two speakers—Chico Planning Services Director Steve Peterson and city Planning Commission Chairman Jon Luvaas—had asked the county to leave urban development up to the city, and that’s pretty much what the commission recommended. Here’s the breakdown (please refer to the map):
Study Area 2 (Northwest Chico Specific Plan): The commission unanimously upheld the CAC’s unanimous recommendation that this large area in northwest Chico west of The Esplanade be developed under the city’s auspices, potentially creating room for an estimated 3,900 new homes around a village core. Peterson said right now the city isn’t sure what it wants to do there and needed a couple of months to finish its general-plan land-use deliberations.
Study Area 3 (Bell-Muir): This area is located north of East Avenue and west of The Esplanade. It’s a hodge-podge of small-lot homes, ranchettes and small orchard farms. Although it’s outside the Greenline, the CAC majority supported development of up to 3,000 new homes, but only after annexation or in close collaboration with the city.
Chico-area Commissioner Chuck Nelson asked whether the study area included the two large orchard parcels between Bell-Muir and Mud Creek, another area the city has looked at for possible growth. County Development Services Director Tim Snellings replied that, at an earlier meeting, the Board of Supervisors had unanimously removed it as a study area. (Both Chico-area supervisors, Jane Dolan and Maureen Kirk, have expressed opposition to development there.)
Ultimately the commission voted unanimously to recommend an urban-reserve designation for Bell-Muir, putting a hold on development, with a five-year deadline for the city to decide whether it intends to annex and develop a plan for the area.
“If we get a letter in a year saying the city is not going to annex it,” said Commissioner Rick Leland, of Durham, “we should let the landowners chop it up” into one-acre home sites, with those desiring to stay in farming being allowed to do so.
Study Area 4 (Forest Ranch): The commission voted unanimously to recommend Forest Ranch be given an underlying agricultural designation that would allow no more houses, but it did support a slight increase in the size of the retail core at Highway 32 and Nopel Avenue.
Study Area 6 (Upper Stilson Canyon): A majority of the CAC had recommended that the area be given an underlying resource-conservation designation, which precludes development, but that a 600-unit clustered development envisioned for the area be allowed.
Despite hearing a passionate appeal from landowner (and Chico business icon) Howard Isom that he or his family someday be allowed to build the development, the commission voted 2-1 to deviate from the CAC’s recommendation and support a resource-conservation designation for the entire area.
Nelson dissented, arguing he believed the area was sufficiently close to Chico, Upper Bidwell Park and Forest Ranch to be developable. But Leland didn’t buy that.
“If you believe in compact growth and want to have growth near urban services, this [the general-plan process] is the only opportunity to do it,” he said. He called the string of small subdivisions along Highway 32 “huge mistakes” and said “this [project] is going to be the same thing, just closer to Chico.”
Study Area 9 (Doe Mill/Honey Run): This 1,425-acre site is a collection of 10 large parcels on which several local developers envision a master-planned neighborhood complete with village core, school site and 400-acre regional park. It’s located east of Potter Road and north of the Skyway, less than a quarter-mile east of Bruce Road, so it’s very close—though not yet contiguous—to existing Chico development.
All of the CAC members had supported the developers’ proposal, but one-third of them wanted it to be under the city’s auspices. However, only one of the three proposed land-use alternatives in the city’s new general plan includes the site.
It was clear from comments made by Bill Brouhard, a Chico developer who is one of the landowners, that the developers would prefer to do business with the county rather than the city.
“What’s your problem with going into the city?” Nelson asked.
“I believe we are involved with the city,” Brouhard responded. “The only difficulty is the political process"—an obvious reference to the current City Council majority’s reluctance to expand eastward.
Ultimately the commission decided the city should be in charge and voted unanimously to do what it had done with Bell-Muir: recommend the area be designated an urban reserve with a five-year deadline for the city to act.
Study Areas 14, 15, 16 and 18: These four areas along Highway 99 between Chico and the Durham-Pentz interchange were established as study areas at the request of landowners who hoped to develop them in various ways.
Again Commissioner Leland led the way, arguing that there should be no further development along Highway 99. Speaking of Study Area 14 (Nance Canyon), just south of the Skyway, which developer Don Swartz has proposed for a business and research park and some residential development, he said: “It’s all about compact growth, not whether this is a good area [for development] or whether this is a good project.”
Nelson disagreed. “I’m looking at large chunks of land [in Study Area 14] where planning can occur,” he said—it may not be needed right now, but down the road it could be.
Nevertheless, he joined in a series of unanimous votes to keep the four areas in agriculture.
Study Area 17 (Durham): The CAC had supported the so-called “D2N plan” (for Durham-Dayton-Nelson) developed by the community a few years ago. It will allow as many as 500 new homes in the area. The commission supported it unanimously.
Overall, the Planning Commission has been largely consistent in its determination to direct future growth to the cities and keep it out of rural areas. It remains to be seen whether the Board of Supervisors will follow suit.