Council whacks developer

At an April 2 meeting that carried felt like the Spanish Inquisition, the Chico City Council took developer Andrew Meghdadi to task for cutting down 84 more trees than the conditions of his project allowed.

Meghdadi, who’s violated city-set conditions for projects in the past, stirred up a storm of anger with his latest indiscretion, and a packed house of angry Chicoans were there to let him know how they felt. His misdeed has been the hottest story in Chico for the past two weeks, with nearly everyone condemning his actions.

Almost incredibly, Meghdadi was at the meeting, sitting front and center, seemingly willing to swallow whatever medicine the fired-up City Council was ready to administer. That remedy includes:

· A “supplemental” environmental-impact report (cost: $50,000) complete with a new round of public hearings and project conditions.

· A full explanation from Meghdadi on why and how this happened.

· An investigation into allegations that Meghdadi operates without a business license.

· A letter from the mayor to the state Contractors Board looking into possible suspension of his state contractor’s license.

Planning Director Kim Seidler tallied the damage in a staff report: Out of an estimated 212 trees on the property, 117 came down, including 24 oaks, but the approved plan called for only 33 to be removed. The extensive tree cutting, Seidler said, not only destroyed the property’s view shed, but also reduced wildlife habitat and increased erosion.

No city ordinance was violated, because the city protects only downtown street trees and those in the parks. In fact, if it had not been for the development plan, Meghdadi could have removed every tree on the property without fear of retribution. But because of the plan to build on the property, Meghdadi is accused of breach of agreement with the city.

A supplemental EIR means building on the one that has already been written, rather than starting over from scratch, Seidler explained. A new EIR would have been based on what is out there now, meaning environmental standards would be lowered because there are fewer trees to protect.

Seidler said this was new territory for the Planning Department. “We generally don’t have developers running amok in Chico,” he explained.

When allowed to speak, a solemn Meghdadi was apologetic.

“We are very sorry we caused so much distress in the community,” said the gray-haired developer. “No one in the room is as sorry as I am. We accept full responsibility for what has happened.”

Meghdadi said he was out of town when the tree felling took place and deferred all council questions to his attorney, Bill Ward. But Ward said he had just recently been retained and asked for 45 days to come up with an explanation for the council.

Under questioning from Councilmember Rick Keene, Ward suggested Associated Arborist Inc., the company hired by Meghdadi after he fired the project’s initial arborist, might be responsible for the overkill.

But that first arborist, Meg Burton, said in a letter to the city that Meghdadi replaced her on March 6, less than two weeks before the tree cutting took place.

The council, including the normally developer-friendly four-member majority, got tough with Meghdadi. Keene made the motion that included the already mentioned items as well as a call for creating a city code to protect trees on subdivision developments. Councilmember Steve Bertagna added a condition that the city watch Meghdadi projects closer than those of other developers.

The motion passed unanimously. Then Councilmember Maureen Kirk made a motion to start work on creating a citywide tree ordinance. It, too, passed unanimously.