Planning Commission to weigh in on controversial Stonegate proposal
As a biologist, Natalie Carter has spent countless hours examining vernal pools, many of them framed by rings of colorful flowers. The marshy green spaces teem with life, attracting meadowlarks while fairy shrimp swim below the surface.
Research indicates that California has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands due to impacts from population growth and agricultural development.
This is concerning to Carter, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council. “We have so little wild habitat left that every little bit matters,” she said. “The loss of habitat at all is a step in the wrong direction.”
Chico developers Pete Giampaoli and his son Chris, who own Epick Homes, have found themselves at the center of an ecological debate over Stonegate, their proposed subdivision for southeast Chico. The project’s environmental impact report (EIR) and requests for a general plan amendment rezone and use permit will be the subject of a Planning Commission meeting tonight (Aug. 30). The project will eventually go before the City Council.
The EIR concluded that environmental impacts were “less than significant” in all areas except one: greenhouse gas emissions due to increased traffic. This has been the source of much debate from environmental advocates, who see significant implications to habitat and believe the report was inadequate.
Stonegate would lie east and west of Bruce Road, between East 20th Street and the Skyway. The 313-acre project would bring just over 600 new housing units to Chico, ranging in size from apartments to 3,000-square-foot homes. Other elements include 3.5 acres of parks and 36.6 acres for commercial businesses.
However, Stonegate is situated on a lush vernal pool habitat, home to species such as the endangered Butte County meadowfoam. Carter said one of the leading contributors to species endangerment/extinction is habitat loss or fragmentation due to development, and that this project would result in “irreversible impacts to the future success of Butte County meadowfoam.”
The Giampaolis are not ignoring that fact. They recently modified the original project to eliminate 45 units of half-acre homes off Skyway near Potter Road. That space will now become part of a 136-acre biological preserve planned for the site, bringing the total preserve to about 151 acres when factoring in the city’s 15-acre Doe Mill-Schmidbauer Preserve.
“We have to be cognizant of the environment and are doing the best we can to provide open space for endangered species while at the same time providing housing opportunities,” Pete said.
Carter said she is glad to hear the developers are considering the project’s environmental impacts, but “there are still some questions of, ‘What are we risking?’”
“Any population, any pool, any plant that gets taken out is going to make it more challenging in preserving the species,” Carter said. Her concerns are echoed by environmental advocates from organizations such as the Altacal Audubon Society and AquAlliance.
Comprehensive surveys are needed of all potentially impacted species, such as Bidwell’s knotweed and the western burrowing owl, Carter wrote in a letter responding to the draft EIR, as well as a study of the hydrology on-site to ensure the wetlands will not become contaminated.
Ideally, there would be no development allowed east of Bruce Road, Carter said. About 9 acres of wetlands/vernal pools and 1.13 acres of Butte County meadowfoam will be destroyed by the development of Stonegate. Those will be re-created on-site or accounted for through the purchase of mitigation credits, according to city Senior Planner Mike Sawley. (About 4.38 acres of meadowfoam will be preserved, as well as the entirety of the historic rock walls near Potter Road.)
Sawley noted the city’s dearth of housing, adding that a green light ultimately depends on adherence to existing state and federal policy, including the Endangered Species Act, as well as a vote of the City Council.
A previous Epick Homes development also stirred environmental controversy.
About a decade ago, the Mountain Vista/Sycamore Glen subdivision was approved. It created 679 homes and apartments on 178 acres between Floral and Ceanothus avenues, immediately south of Sycamore Creek, home to vernal pools and endangered species.
Although the project established a 56-acre wetland preserve along the creek, it also filled in 6 acres of wetlands. Those impacts were offset by a conservation easement established in Tehama County.
Pete told the CN&R that Epick’s vision for Stonegate is to strike a balance between the city’s housing needs and environmental concerns.
The developers have modified several aspects of the original project proposal submitted in September 2015, based on community feedback, the most notable being the removal of the half-acre home lots in favor of more preserve land. They also expanded three bus stops near the project’s 188 apartment units to include more space for resting and bicycle racks to encourage alternative modes of travel.
In addition, the Giampaolis designed a more circuitous route through the Parkhurst Street and Webster Drive neighborhoods, whose residents were concerned about roadway connections that could have created more traffic through their subdivision.
Chris envisions a vibrant, diverse community, from young couples desiring to purchase their first home to growing families looking for more space to folks downsizing from sprawling lands in more rural areas of Butte County.
“We’ve refined the project to help make it more of a community-based project,” Chris said. “I really believe that.”