Developers take a drubbing

Two local developers who had been moving moderately large projects through the city’s lengthy planning process hit a wall Tuesday (Oct. 3), when a profoundly divided—and often confused—Chico City Council turned thumbs down on them.

One was Tony Symmes, who was asking the council to decide on a favored design and density for his Wildwood Estates project, which is proposed for a 36-acre parcel off Cactus Avenue north of East Avenue. The other was Steve Schuster, who was seeking a General Plan amendment and rezone for his Tuscan Village project on an 18.3-acre triangular piece of land on the south side of Eaton Road between Morseman and Burnap.

Both were urban-density projects in areas where existing homes were less dense, and both had run into neighborhood opposition.

Neighbors appealed the city Planning Commission’s approval of Wildwood Estates, and in August the council held a long and contentious public hearing on it. At the end of it, the council decided to take no action, instead continuing the hearing to the Oct. 3 meeting and asking the developer and neighbors to meet and work out their differences.

They did so and came back with two alternative maps. Symmes then offered yet another alternative that was slightly less dense than the others. All three alternatives cut the density of the project from its original 230 units to around 185 units and resolved the problems the council had noted at its earlier meeting.

In addition, local environmentalist John Merz presented a map that would eliminate about a third of the houses to protect wetlands, reducing the number of units to 117.

This flurry of alternatives, as Merz put it, presented “a moving target,” and the council was clearly flummoxed, especially after a number of the neighbors complained that the project was still too dense. They wanted it sent back to the Planning Commission and there have it brought down to 150 units, with more land set aside as open space.

At one point, Councilwoman Maureen Kirk proposed eliminating several of the smaller lots, despite the fact that they were intended for the project’s quota of “affordable” housing.

Motion after motion was made but failed in the vote or couldn’t get a second. Finally, after nearly three hours of discussion, Councilman Andy Holcombe moved to approve Symmes’ final proposal but eliminate five lots next to a large vernal pool area in the northeast corner to increase the open space.

Councilman Dan Herbert and Councilwoman Maureen Kirk voted with him, but Councilmen Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl—usually strong supporters of such projects—balked. Bertagna especially was worried that keeping the vernal pool would set a precedent for future projects in the area. Others, including Planning Director Kim Seidler, assured him it was a case-by-case decision, and that the fate of the vernal pool was up to federal agencies anyway. But Bertagna and Wahl held firm, and the motion failed 4-3.

That left the door open for Councilwoman Ann Schwab to move to uphold the appeal and send the project back to the Planning Commission. Holcombe, Kirk and Mayor Scott Gruendl voted with her.

A discouraged Symmes, who believed he’d done everything the council had asked him to do only to be told to start over, was almost speechless afterwards.

Tuscan Village was equally complicated. At a three-hour public hearing on Sept. 5, the council had directed staff to amend the General Plan diagram in several regards to make the project more compatible with the neighborhood. City staff had done so, but the neighbors—worried about traffic—still objected, preferring the original zoning, which was slightly less dense (by about one unit per acre).

The original zoning also contained a 3.5-acre commercial area, which nobody thought was a good idea—it was either unfeasible at that site or would generate even more traffic, depending on who was speaking.

Council members largely agreed that the new project was an improvement, but the four members of the liberal majority sided with the neighbors and voted against the rezone and general-plan amendment.

“OK, you’ll get your commercial area,” a frustrated Schuster said to the neighbors as he exited the council chambers.