Comprehensive growth: expansion according to plan

The Chico City Council made history of a sort this week when it finally approved a comprehensive development plan comprising approximately 700 acres north of Eaton Road, straddling The Esplanade and Highway 99 to Mud and Sycamore creeks and bordering the county’s much revered agricultural-protecting greenline.

What made the Northwest Chico Specific Plan different from those of the past is that it involves six or seven different builders who will eventually construct 2,445 housing units and as much as 442,994 square feet of commercial space, parks, trails and the needed infrastructure.

The plan considers and tries to accommodate existing businesses, landowners and nearby agricultural properties. Groundbreaking for the initial phases could begin as early as next spring, said City Manager Tom Lando

The closest comparison to this plan, Lando said, would be the Drake Foothill Park in northeast Chico and the ill-fated Rancho Arroyo, which evolved into Bidwell Ranch before it died on the vine because of public opposition.

But those projects involved only one developer. This one includes some of the area’s biggest builders including Greg Webb and Pete Giampaoli. The plan has been in the works for at least a decade, with more focus in the last two years. It has involved Butte County input because most of the property is outside the city limits and slated for annexation.

The idea behind encompassing the entire area is to avoid piecemeal development in which the environmental impact of each project is weighed on its own rather than considering the conglomerate effect of full build-out for the whole area.

This week the council considered 23 issues as passed on by the Planning Commission following a joint council-commission public hearing in October. In November a city-county committee met to discuss concerns such as devising a proper buffer between the ag lands and urban development with hopes of alleviating the conflicts like noise and chemical spray drift that arise between farming operations and people trying to live next door.

On Nov. 22 the Planning Commission met again and made its final recommendations for the City Council, which took up each and voted either to endorse the commission’s suggestions straight out or tweak them a bit.

In establishing an appropriate buffer, for instance, Councilmembers Maureen Kirk and Larry Wahl disagreed over whether a 300-foot or 100-foot setback was needed to the southwest of the project. Wahl said the area was comprised of a dying orchard and that 100 feet would be fine. City Manager Lando said the city’s General Plan calls for a 100-foot set back and unless the county grants the city eminent domain to increase the buffer to 300 feet, the property owner will want the city to pay much more expensive urban-property value instead of ag-property value to purchase the land.

In the end the council voted to keep both options open. And that is how it went for the evening, with discussions over raised porches (Kirk was against, saying raised porches were a hindrance to those in wheelchairs and would force them to enter the house “like the servants do"), reducing the dominance of garages by making them narrow or setting them behind the house, bike paths and the width of the median on the project’s Center Street—30 feet rather than a suggested 80.

Councilmember Andy Holcombe, an advocate of affordable homes, tried to increase densities but was warned by project consultant David Early that doing so could trigger the need to re-circulate the environmental impact report, a time consuming and costly procedure. Adding more than 50 living units would probably do just that, Early said.

The council also talked about substituting the word “shall” for “should” to give the plan a bit more authority.

Not everybody was happy with the process. Jim Mann, a local building consultant, told the council, “We like comprehensive planning but there is almost nothing [here] we can rely on.”

Mann and his clients will have to get used to the new approach to growth. The Northwest Chico Specific Plan will most likely be used a model for future Chico expansion.