House rules

Completion of the Esplanade House move and expansion lurched forward at this week’s City Council meeting, when four of the six councilmembers present voted to pass along $395,250 in federal funding to help secure the property on The Esplanade near Lassen Avenue. The project, which would move the transitional family housing facility about a mile north of its present location in a former motel and expand its capacity from 13 units to 60 units, has met with great resistance from people in the neighborhood and three councilmembers. But only two of those councilmembers—Rick Keene and Larry Wahl—can meaningfully express their opposition. Mayor Dan Herbert lives too close to the project and can’t vote on its fate. The council voted earlier this year to deny the opposition an appeal on the initial approval of the project. This week foes were back at it, arguing why they don’t want the Esplanade House near them. Basically it comes down to a fear of poor people—mostly single mothers with kids—struggling to get their lives together and find permanent housing. Apprehensive neighbors seem to think the poor folks’ problems will somehow creep like a fog beyond the project’s property lines, up their sidewalks and into their safe homes. More than 1,000 people signed petitions to keep the project at bay.

But the council majority stuck to its guns and voted for the funding. Three of the councilmembers—Coleen Jarvis, Maureen Kirk and Dan Nguyen-Tan—have favored the project from the start. The fourth, Steve Bertagna, broke ranks with Keene and Wahl when he voted against the appeal in August. The neighbors accused the council of not listening to its concerns. In response Bertagna argued, “There is a difference between listening and agreeing.” Keene and Wahl said they didn’t like the location, thought the zoning laws had been suspiciously tweaked to allow the project, and there was a better spot near Hank Marsh Junior High School in east Chico. Wahl also said that the Esplanade House still owed the city $184,500 on a loan for the original project.

In what is surely a twist of small-town irony, Wahl’s late father Les was a retired Chico schoolteacher who helped put together the huge retirement project in California Park called Sierra Sunrise Village. The City Council’s redevelopment agency issued builder Walker Methodist some $20 million in bonds to help finance construction of that facility. The city also granted Walker $1.3 million on the condition that 20 of the units would be for low- and moderate-income residents. The agreement said the $1.3 million would be paid back as soon as the company started making a profit. But it never has turned a profit and likely never will. And in 2025 the facility can eliminate the low- and moderate-income units. Les Wahl can’t be held responsible for that unfortunate financial outcome. He merely used his considerable local influence to lobby the council for its assistance. The project benefits a lot of people. But maybe this is why Larry Wahl is hesitant to support the Esplanade House.

If there’s one good thing that Councilmember Wahl has done since coming into office this year, it’s following through on his pledge to expand the library hours. Beginning Oct. 13 and running through the next year, the Chico branch of the Butte County Library will be open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wahl helped wrangle the council into devoting $120,000 of the city’s general fund to expand the library hours. Lately I’ve been taking my son, and occasionally a couple of his buddies, to the library on Saturdays. It’s an amazing thing to see—three guys who’ve been roughhousing all morning walk into the library, and their demeanor gets real serious, real fast. There is a sense of earnest reverence that one feels in a library. The vast quantity of knowledge stacked on the shelves is both stunning and exciting. (Mind you, these are fellows who’ve grown up in the Internet age, when an infinite source of information is a few mouse clicks away.) You can help. Community radio station KZFR is sponsoring a book drive to beef up the children’s section of the library. Bring new or mint-condition kids’ books to any branch in the county during October. Look for the big bright bucket.