Chico supervisors leery of general plan process

As it had once before, Butte County’s new general plan came under attack Tuesday (Nov. 27) for using a process that allegedly gives the appearance of giving developers either free rein or at least a foot in the door leading to inappropriate development.

Last time, on Sept. 28, the plan had been before the county Planning Commission (see “Plan hits a pothole,” CN&R, Oct. 4, 2007). This time, the Board of Supervisors was taking its first look at the plan, and chambers were packed with interested people.

At issue, as before, was the decision on the part of Development Services Director Tim Snellings and the county’s consultant, David Early, of the Berkeley-based firm Design, Community, and Environment (DCE), to be liberal in their designation of “study areas” in which development could possibly occur.

The supervisors expressed frustration with this arrangement at the outset of the meeting, with District 3 Supervisor Maureen Kirk, of Chico, firing the first salvo. “The problem is we [the supervisors] haven’t had any input to this. I don’t understand, for example, how a study area comes into existence.”

The process of developing the new plan thus far has included 19 community meetings, several caucuses with the Citizens Action Committee, two meetings of the county Planning Commission, as well as numerous individual meetings with the various town and city councils. During that process, a total of 43 “study areas,” or potential areas of growth, have been identified, in some cases as a result of landowners’ asking that their property be included.

“You mean to tell me,” asked Dolan, “is that all it took to become a study area was for some landholder to write, ‘Dear Mr. Snellings, I have 10,000 acres. Can I be a study area?'”

Yes, replied Early, explaining that he didn’t think it was his role to decide who was in and who was out.

“During this process we went to great lengths to give every aspect of the county their time under the sun, be it a developer or an environmentalist,” he explained. “If someone with acreage wants to be part of this process, it’s not my authority to say no. I’m not in the position to stop it. I’m not allowed to make those decisions.”

As Snellings explained it, the county’s population will increase by 100,000 people by the year 2030, the plan’s target date. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of buildable land will be needed to meet their housing needs. At this point the study areas comprise 118,000 acres, so clearly most of them will not be developed.

Some of the supervisors came to Snellings’ and Early’s defense.

“I think it was a fair process,” stated Curt Josiassen of District 4. “It’s inclusive.”

“I agree,” chimed in District 5’s Kim Yamaguchi. “It is healthy to look at all the options, lay it out on the table, see all the assets our county has to offer.”

But Dolan was unimpressed. She kept peppering Early and Snellings until apologies surfaced.

“Look,” said a beleaguered Early, “I sincerely apologize if I put you or any of the supervisors in a compromising position. I thought we made it clear to those giving us input that there is no expectation, no obligation, no entitlements. You the supervisors do not have to take up all of these study areas. You are under no expectation, no obligation, no entitlements.”

“You’re going to have to say that again,” replied Dolan, “a lot!”

“You can remove any of the study areas you see fit,” countered Early. “If you feel there is no reason to study an area, then we won’t. That makes less for us to do.”

“By being this inclusive,” stated Bill Connelly of District 1, “you made our [the supervisors'] jobs more difficult. But it was the right thing to do.”

But the notion that land-use alternatives took a front seat and that a visionary land-use policy came second bothered Connelly and clearly irked Dolan and Kirk.

“Having ‘policy development’ in place prior to studying land-use alternatives makes it difficult,” explained Early. “Without the concrete examples of the land itself, a policy can’t take into account the numerous details that said property presents.”

In his experience, he said, “most policies are too vague. … [They] get in the way, they have to be continually word-smithed in order to make the policy fit to the realities a particular piece of property represents.”

The meeting was the first in a series designed to allow the supervisors time to make adjustments to the plan as proposed and give guidance to Snellings and Early as to which of the 43 study areas will actually be studied. It will be up to them to decide the kind of growth that’s appropriate in each area—whether compact, urban growth or more expansive, rural-style growth. Their decisions will also be based on the constraints that each study area faces in terms of such issues as wildlife habitat, endangered species, water availability and so forth.

Once the supervisors choose which areas to examine further, DCE will have nine months to study them and report back.