Esplanade House rules

Angry neighbors appeal Planning Commission approval of expansion and move for transitional-housing program

Cause and effect: The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California has cited 11 studies that show no connection between affordable or subsidized housing and the diminishment of property values.
While it may not get a Welcome Wagon-type reception from its new neighbors, the Esplanade House transitional-housing facility will likely be moving about a half-mile up and across the road from its current location at The Esplanade and East Avenue.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously June 21 to approve the move and expansion over the objections of neighbors who fear the program, which caters to families facing homelessness, will bring undesirables onto their streets and send local property values into a nosedive.

Some of those same neighbors filed an appeal with the City Council on June 22 to see if that body would overrule the commission’s approval and move the project elsewhere. But it’s unlikely that appeal will get the needed four votes from the council on Aug. 7.

Two days before the Planning Commission meeting, the council discussed whether to hear the details of a proposal by Councilmember Larry Wahl to move the Esplanade House expansion to Whitman Avenue in southeast Chico, where it would sit next to the future homeless shelter, squeezed in between Costco and the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.

Wahl’s plan would move a proposed BMX bike, slated to sit next to the shelter, north to the yet-to-be built DeGarmo neighborhood park. This, however, would not work, according to the BMX track’s biggest supporter, Councilmember Steve Bertagna. That location could never support the “tens of thousands” of users or the expected onslaught of RVs that would need parking, Bertagna said.

After Wahl’s long-winded explanation of why the council should take up his scheme, the council did not dismiss it outright but instead voted 5-1 to have city staff look at other potential sites and bring back a report July 17. (Mayor Dan Herbert could not vote becasue he lives too close to the proposed site.)

This vote infuriated the lone holdout, Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, who’s long been an advocate for homelessness issues. Jarvis argued that the Esplanade House board of directors, led by local developer Greg Webb and Dr. Gary Incaudo, had found the best place for the expanded facility and that, by agreeing to look at other sites, the council was lending credibility to the neighbors’ objections.

In a letter written after both the council’s and commission’s meetings, Jarvis poked holes in Wahl’s plan, saying the BMX track would not fit in the park, failed to meet the needs of those interested in the more traditional baseball and soccer activities, and in the end would most likely cost the city more money than it would save.

“Somehow, instead of dismissing the Wahl proposal for the above reasons, council voted to consider not only this proposal but other alternative sites for the Esplanade House expansion,” she wrote. “The Esplanade House supporters have spent years looking at sites for their expansion. They have many needs to meet (close to services, bus lines, sewer lines). The site was chosen after careful consideration of alternatives because it meets all of the needs, is zoned appropriately and is available.”

Jarvis went on to note that with Herbert conflicted out of the voting, her fellow progressives—Dan Nguyen-Tan and Maureen Kirk—could have joined her and killed any further consideration of alternative sites by virtue of a 3-3 vote.

This week Nguyen-Tan explained his vote and said he will most likely not vote for the neighbors’ appeal.

“To hear the appeal, there would have to be some unusual new information that was not presented at the Planning Commission meeting,” he said. “But if the same concerns are repeated, I probably won’t vote to grant the appeal.”

Nguyen-Tan said that he thinks the Shasta Avenue/Esplanade site is the best fit, “but I think it’s worthwhile to have staff look at alternative sites so the council and the community can understand that the other sites have constraints and problems.”

“I think Coleen and I both support the Esplanade House’s desire to move to the new site,” he said. “Our difference is in the process. I want to justify that this is in fact the best site. She thinks that, by asking to explore these other sites, we’re lending come credibility to the arguments to move it elsewhere.”

Councilmember Kirk said she will grant the appeal only if the neighbors can demonstrate that the Planning Commission made some sort of legal or procedural error in granting its approval.

“I will listen to Larry’s proposal,” she added. “It’s pretty irregular, but I’m willing to listen.”

On the day after the commission approved the move and expansion—the same day the neighbors filed to appeal—Esplanade House Project Coordinator Mickey Taylor was in her office on the phone, fielding questions, allaying concerns and trying to build confidence in her staff and herself that everything was still a go.

She had reason to be upbeat: A few nights before she had received a $20,000 check from an anonymous donor. (The Esplanade House relies on community fund-raising for about 20 percent of its financing; the rest comes from city, state and federal funding.)

Taylor said she was hoping to avoid an interview with local television media and reluctantly agreed to visit the proposed new site, which is tucked away on the southeast corner of The Esplanade and Shasta Avenue. As she exited her office at the existing 13-unit Esplanade House, which is a converted motel, little kids ran around and played on the patio—a filled-in swimming pool—while their moms and, in some cases, dads watched.

The Esplanade House is operated by the Community Action Agency and provides temporary housing and off-site counseling programs for families who are in trouble due to any number of problems ranging from domestic violence, the fallout of drug abuse to the interruptions of prison time.

The new facility would offer 60 units, some to accommodate those families just entering the program, which lasts about six months, and the rest for those who have graduated and who can stay for up to 18 months while looking for a permanent home. The expanded program would also offer a child care facility that could handle up to 75 kids.

The property, slated to be annexed into the city before the project is built, consists of 3.5 acres of an old almond orchard bordered by a mini-storage and a used-car lot to the south, a building supply business and single-family homes to the north, a glass supply contractor and printing business to the west and a large apartment complex to the east.

According to Lynne Bussey, an active member of the Esplanade House board of directors, Greg Webb worked for more than a year to find that piece of property, which the owners finally agreed to sell for $450,000.

Bussey said she and Webb and Dr. Incaudo surveyed other potential sites, and the only one that came as close as this one to satisfying all their needs is in the wealthy neighborhood of Canyon Oaks.

Still, here along the north Esplanade, some neighbors are fighting fiercely to protect the most important investment in their lives—their houses. Someone planted signs a few days before the Planning Commission meeting that had the words “Transient Housing” circled and crossed out in red. It urged others to attend and “Say no on June 21st.”

Taylor has one of the signs in her office.

“These signs weren’t even in the immediate neighborhood,” she said. “They were way over on the other side of The Esplanade.”

Michelle Potter, an Esplanade House graduate with two kids, attended the Planning Commission meeting and handed out green ribbons as signs of support for the program. She now works for North State Imaging, where she was recently promoted for the second time. She would have never made it to where she is if it were not for the Esplanade House, she said.

"I’m not really sure what they are afraid of," she said of the neighbors. "I think they fear everything. They think we’re some sort of freaks and that their property value will go down once we move in. But they don’t know who we are."