An old conflict reared its head at the April 26 Chico City Council meeting when the name Comanche Creek snuck into a discussion about potential redevelopment projects. The council meeting was going along just fine, with every councilmember pretty much agreeing that the city redevelopment revenue (the fuel that makes cities run in the wake of Prop. 13) should for sure go to fund, among other things in the next fiscal year, building two airplane hangars at the airport ($5.5 million) for Aero Union to lease, expanding the animal shelter ($132,600) and the police station ($3 million) and adding some new fire hydrants ($33,078). Councilmembers also sort of nodded their heads in unison on the possibility of one day building an aquatic center ($7.7 million) and community gymnasium ($3 million to $5 million), the locations of which are yet to be determined. But then Councilman Andy Holcombe had to go and spit in the punchbowl of council harmony by suggesting maybe some of the money, whose total amount and actual reality rest on the council-voting to issue a $45 to $60 million revenue bond, go toward purchasing the Comanche Creek property.
The words “Comanche Creek” carry almost as much political charge as does “Bidwell Ranch” when it comes to rekindling conservative-versus-liberal debates. Comanche Creek, like Bidwell Ranch, is an unresolved land-use issue. In this case the matter concerns a bridge that was never built in southwest Chico. The structure, known as the Otterson Bridge, was approved by the then-conservative-controlled council in early 2001 at an estimated cost of $2.9 million. Supporters said the bridge would help attract out-of-town companies to the Hegan Lane Business Park, which sits on one end of where the structure was to be built. Those newly arrived businesses would provide jobs so that our sons and daughters would not have to move away from Chico to find decent work. The bridge would also ease future traffic congestion where East Park Avenue meets the Midway. Opponents, on the other hand, complained that the bridge was a taxpayer giveaway whose presence would wipe out the riparian habitat along the creek. They forced a special election by collecting the required number of signatures to place the issue on the ballot. The conservative majority got to craft the ballot measure language, which was a bit tortured, and set the date of the vote—June 5, a day when students, who are generally perceived as liberal by the conservatives, would be out of town. Even with all that, Measure A collapsed under the weight of a 55 percent no vote. Conservatives were pissed, as was business park owner Doug Guillon, who said the day after the election that, tired of the no-growthers in this town, he was headed to Idaho, pronto. (He didn’t go.) When liberals moved, in the wake of the election, to purchase the land, the conservative majority shut them down cold.
So this week Holcombe brings it up again and says the city should buy the land and add it to the parks system as creekside greenway and at the very least protect it from unwanted development. City Manager Tom Lando says that he recalls the price tag in 2001 for the 14 to 17 acres was something like $1.2 million, but that it probably has gone up. So Holcombe says in his motion that the city will set aside up to $5 million for possible purchase. At that point Councilmembers Larry Wahl, Steve Bertagna and Dan Herbert, three of the four members of that old conservative majority, pop their corks. “Five million for a greenway?” Bertagna protests. “Is there enough land there to build a new police station?” Wahl deadpans. “Well, we can continue to buy land all over to try to prevent growth,” Herbert mocks. Holcombe says he just wants to add the property to the spending priority list and then makes a motion of intent, which fails 4-3 because Councilwoman Maureen Kirk says she is not ready to vote without firm details, like the cost of the property. Five million, she says, is a lot of money. About a half-hour later, during a break in the meeting, Community Development Director Tony Baptiste tells me he’s just learned that the property, which is owned by the Thomasson family, is still on the market for $1.2 million. Oh baby, this fight ain’t over yet.