Farley’s long ride
Bicyclist’s effort to save a historic road runs into a brick wall
When Francis Farley reaches Old Humboldt Road, where it begins to climb into the foothills east of Chico, he’s arrived at the turnaround point of his morning bicycle ride. He pulls out a plastic bag or two that he carries in his rear-wheel baskets and begins filling them with trash he collects from the roadside.
While most of us are still sleeping, Farley makes this ride from his home on Chico’s west side six days a week. He used to cover 25 miles a day seven days a week, but in recent years he’s cut back slightly as a small concession to his 83 years.
Farley’s routine is to move uphill along the road until the bags are full. Then he ties them to his handlebars and turns for home, coasting down Humboldt until it flattens near Marsh Junior High School.
Farley’s bike baskets carry signs that read: “Save Humboldt Road.” Farley loves the road, and it’s easy to see why. When you get past the ugly part in the vicinity of the old Humboldt Road Burn Dump and start climbing uphill, it becomes a narrow, gently curving lane among blue oak trees. Running parallel to it, just a few yards to the south, is one of Chico’s historic rock walls. As the sun rises, it’s bathed in a golden light that makes everything appear to glow.
Farley stops to point out two wagon ruts carved in the rock-hard lava cap just a few feet from the road, relics of John Bidwell’s old Humboldt Wagon Trail, a toll road dating from the 1860s that stretched all the way to Honey Lake. The ruts are about five feet apart, the width of a horse-drawn wagon, and about six inches deep, which suggests just how many wagons once passed this way. There are several places along this four-mile stretch of Humboldt Road where the ruts are visible, he says, testimony to a century and a half of Chico’s history.
As far as Farley’s concerned, the road and everything along it are on the verge of being ruined. That’s because plans call for it to be widened to a 20-foot-wide collector road, with additional 5-foot bike paths on both sides, in conjunction with the new, 1,300-unit Oak Valley subdivision just to the north, between the road and Highway 32.
The retired teacher and speech therapist has been on a lonely mission to save the old road for more than four years, so far without success. His efforts to point out what he sees as fundamental flaws in the project’s environmental-impact report have been to no avail, and the City Council approved the project in September 2005.
He says he can’t afford to sue, so now he’s down to his last resort: making a complaint to the grand jury.
The crux of the issue is that the Oak Valley developers propose to save the wagon ruts and the rock wall but neither they nor the city is committed to saving the road itself.
That’s wrong, Farley insists. Humboldt Road—the paved portion—is also part of the historical resource that includes the ruts and wall. He cites the California Environmental Quality Act § 15064.5, which states, “A substantial adverse change in the significance of an historical resource includes physical demolition, destruction, relocation or alteration of the resource or its immediate surroundings such that the significance of an historical resource would be materially impaired [emphasis added].”
“You can’t protect the historic wagon ruts if you don’t protect Humboldt Road,” Farley argues.
In numerous private meetings and public hearings, Farley has called this to the attention of city planning staff as well as the members of the Planning Commission and City Council, without success.
He asked the Northeast Center of the California Historical Resources Information System to weigh in. In a May 24, 2004, letter to the city, Amy Huberland, assistant coordinator of the center, noted that Humboldt Road was built in 1933 as State Route 47, later became Highway 32 and “is considered to be a part of its history rather than a negative impact to the property.” The road itself, in other words, is a “historical resource” worthy of protection.
Farley also contacted the state Office of Historic Preservation. On July 25, 2005, Michelle C. Messinger, a historian with the office, wrote to the city. After reviewing the Oak Valley EIR, her agency decided it was inadequate:
“It … fails in delineating the potential impacts to the existing historical resources and therefore cannot propose effective mitigation measures required by law ….”
In response to the letters, Patrick Murphy, the senior planner overseeing the Oak Valley proposal, asked the author of the EIR’s original assessment of the historical resources, Rand Herbert of JRP Historical Consulting in Davis, to clarify further his original assessment.
Herbert pointed out that the historical nature of the road is already significantly compromised by a variety of intrusive elements—high-power transmission lines, wooden power poles that parallel the old wagon trail, the recently constructed burn dump mound, a cell-phone tower.
In that context, he writes, “the proposed development would not be a substantial adverse change” in the setting. His comments do not address the issue of whether Humboldt Road itself is a historic resource, however.
In written comments to the City Council dated Aug. 31, 2005, Murphy noted that numerous measures had been taken to “minimize impacts to the setting of the resources,” including minimizing the width of Humboldt Road. No further mitigation measures were needed, he said.
The 2005-06 Butte County Grand Jury looked at the wagon trail issue, and it recommended minimizing “the impact to the historic area” and protecting “the wagon trail and rock wall as a permanent open space easement.”
Farley wants this year’s grand jury to take another look, this time specifically at whether CEQA guidelines have been followed. He believes the city is breaking the law and stubbornly turning a blind eye to the EIR’s failures.
Saving the road is part of his patriotic duty, as is picking up the trash, he says. “My definition of patriotism goes back to the original meaning of the word, love of the land … Humboldt Road is my land …. I want it preserved because that will preserve and protect the wagon ruts, mine and the people’s cultural resources.”