Gotta keep ’em separated

Chico’s new high school and a property owner’s plans for a 178-house development are two separate projects and should be treated that way in permit applications, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended.

In a May 9 letter to Jim Mann, who is the consultant for the Schmidbauer family of Eureka, Army Corps Chief Michael Jewell wrote that “each could proceed without the other,” and, “Separating these projects would prevent one from unnecessarily delaying the other and allow for more expedited processing if a less environmentally damaging alternative is available.”

The Chico Unified School District is taking the message well. “I see it as a positive,” Superintendent Scott Brown said.

The chosen site for Chico’s fourth high school, along Bruce Road near the Skyway, has been bogged down by environmental hurdles and likely could not be built there until 2005 or 2006. Covering its bases, the CUSD has expanded the environmental-impact report for the project to include three other south Chico properties.

Mann said the property owner has no problem with the CUSD applying on its own behalf. “[The Army Corps] feel that they could process the school’s application quicker than they could the residential,” said Mann, adding that the property owner will “never” give up on building the houses there.

“There’s an ever more urgent need for the residential,” he said, mentioning Chico’s growth and need for affordable homes.

Matt Kelley, project manager for the Army Corps, said, “We’ve believed from the start that these are two separate projects, and we put in our public notice they had separate purposes. Separating the projects would facilitate the permit process for them.”

Scott Schofield, president of the CUSD Board of Trustees, said the district is reviewing the Army Corps’ letter and will “sift through what that means, exactly.”

He wants to make sure that, if the CUSD re-applies in its own name, “we are not starting the whole application process over. We’ve received verbal assurances that that would not be the case.

“We’ve lost a lot of time already,” Schofield said.

Critics wonder why the district—with the input of a community committee—selected a site that is host to the endangered Butte County meadowfoam plant and thus requires extensive mitigation measures by the property owners, who have offered up one-third of the property as a preserve. But the CUSD holds fast to the idea that this was the best piece of land available in the growing part of town.

Barbara Vlamis, general manager of the Butte Environmental Council, said there are “plenty of options” for land buying if the district comes to agree that the Schmidbauer site is a bad idea.

“We have said all along that it was a hindrance to the school district to marry itself to a larger project,” Vlamis said. “A school is never tied to a housing project.

“I wouldn’t say that this provides a green light in any way to this project,” she said of the Army Corps’ latest recommendation.

As for why the district didn’t apply for a separate permit earlier, Schofield pointed out that the CUSD does not own the land and also that in applying for the wetlands fill permit, the property owners essentially footed the bill for the CUSD.

Mann said, “It seemed only prudent, since we were going to be pursuing the permits, to include Chico Unified rather than double the efforts and the costs.”

He added that the Schmidbauers’ offer to eventually sell the 50-acre parcel to the CUSD at $60,000 an acre still stands.

"That’s right within our budget," Schofield confirmed.