Down the pipe

Council updated on Chico-Paradise sewer connection, revisits commercial pot ban

Paradise Vice Mayor Jody Jones (center) wants to solve her town’s wastewater problems—with Chico’s help.

Paradise Vice Mayor Jody Jones (center) wants to solve her town’s wastewater problems—with Chico’s help.

CN&R file photo

For the better part of four decades, the town of Paradise has been trying to hook up with Chico. In fact, the concept of building an 8-mile pipe along the Skyway to send Paradise’s sewage to the Water Pollution Control Plant west of Chico may be the most studied, unfunded capital project in Butte County’s history.

Seeking to move the plan forward, two Paradise officials—Vice Mayor Jody Jones and Town Manager Lauren Gill—asked for the support of the Chico City Council on Tuesday (Sept. 19).

“We’d simply like to know Chico has not outright rejected this,” Jones said. “If you don’t want to do this, please tell us now so we don’t waste our money.”

Jones came before the council in September 2015 to outline the problem: Paradise is still wholly dependent on septic systems, which are failing at an alarming rate in the town’s commercial core. Fearing economic losses and groundwater contamination, town officials have been scrambling to find a solution.

That effort included hiring consulting firm Bennett Engineering to complete the Paradise Sewer Project Feasibility Report, the seventh official study of the matter in the last 35 years. The report considered a handful of alternatives, such as Paradise building its own treatment plant or smaller clustered systems in commercial areas. Ultimately, the report recommended the Paradise-Chico sewer connection as by far the least expensive option, though it would cost an estimated $80 million.

“We’re looking at a lot of grants to make this work,” Gill told the council.

The next step is environmental review, which is expected to run somewhere between $4 million and $5 million. However, the Paradise officials wanted to know Chico was on board before entering that process, and asked for a formal letter of support.

But most members of the council expressed skepticism of the project.

“So, don’t take this the wrong way,” said Mayor Sean Morgan. “I’ve heard a lot of reasons why this is good for Paradise—and we certainly want to be a friendly downstream neighbor—but what’s in it for the city of Chico? Whether or not our sewage treatment plant has excess capacity or not, we have an obligation to the people who pay for it.”

“Well, we would be paying for the services we’d be getting,” Jones responded, “and the money we’d pay you could be used to pay off some of those loans you have for that facility. That’s really the biggest benefit for Chico—you would get our money.”

“That’s a good answer for me,” Morgan said.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab said she was concerned about straining the capacity of the treatment plant as Chico’s population expands, while Councilman Karl Ory questioned whether the historically frugal, tax-averse community on the Ridge would make good long-term partners in paying to run the plant.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that the town will foot the bill,” Ory said.

The letter, however, is not legally binding. Before the project becomes reality, the two municipalities would need to negotiate a memorandum of understanding, said Councilman Mark Sorensen.

“At this point, there is no commitment,” he said.

The council voted 6-1 to sign the letter, with Schwab dissenting.

In other council news, the panel voted 4-3 down party lines to “streamline” all of the city’s cannabis-related laws into one ordinance, which would, among other things, mean banning all outdoor grows—medicinal and recreational—within city limits. Outdoor gardens are currently allowed for medical purposes.

In May, the conservative-majority council voted to ban commercial weed activity, despite most residents having voted in favor of Proposition 64, which legalized adult use and commerce statewide. But it wasn’t long before the regulatory landscape changed again with Senate Bill 94—passed by the California Legislature in June—which consolidated regulations for medicinal and recreational marijuana. City Attorney Vince Ewing recommended that the council follow suit and adopt a single ordinance, rather than two standalone laws for recreational and medicinal activity. Otherwise, “enforcement and prosecutorial challenges” could arise, Ewing said.

“One of the concerns that came to mind was the potential for exploitation of the two ordinances,” he said. “People who may not want to comply could point to one ordinance and say, ‘Well, gee, I thought I was following that ordinance when this other one applied to me.’ … One regulatory scheme eliminates that issue altogether.”

Several members of the public argued in favor of embracing cannabis legalization. Dan Everhart, for example, questioned the wisdom of forcing people to grow weed indoors.

“This is one of the sunniest places in the country,” he said. “Telling people they should grow something inside just doesn’t make sense from an energy-use perspective.”

But the council’s conservative majority was unmoved; the ordinance is tentatively set to come back to the council in October.