How dense are we?

We keep hearing about a housing shortage in Chico that is driving up the cost of houses. This week the City Council took a small step to remedy that problem by raising the minimum number of living units a builder can place on property zoned medium-density, or R-2. Currently builders can put as few as four houses per acre on such land, which is usually what they do. There’s more profit to be made from bigger houses with larger lots and less to pay in those dreaded developer fees. Back in 1994, Chico’s then-new General Plan called for at least seven dwelling units to be built on R-2 land. But it was never implemented, and in 1998 Mayor Rick Keene took a carving knife to that part of the plan because local developers, some of whom helped fund Keene’s campaign for office, didn’t like building dense projects. The market didn’t demand them, and the surrounding neighbors fought them. So Keene slashed the minimum to four units per acre. That was many acres and lost potential houses ago. Today there are about 260 R-2 acres of land left in Chico. This week the council was back at it, trying to raise the minimum, which if increased to the seven-unit level translates into an additional 1,000 houses on those acres. More housing! Lower prices!

But there was resistance from Councilmembers Dan Herbert, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna. Herbert said the residents of Chico don’t want dense development and that, while he didn’t want “to beat a dead drum,” Bidwell Ranch, he reminded everyone, was part of the General Plan too, for development. Now it’s not. Wahl said we should open up more land and that forcing developers to increase densities amounted to “social engineering.” Bertagna suggested that, rather than forcing builders to shoehorn more houses on less space, maybe the city could simply encourage them to do so. “This has nothing to do with politics,” Bertagna said, adding it was just “good common sense.” Councilman Andy Holcombe, who was pushing for the seven-unit minimum, echoed Bertagna’s “nothing to do with politics” theory and said raising the minimum made “good common sense.” In the end the council, at Vice Mayor Maureen Kirk’s suggestion, voted 4-3 to raise the minimum from four to 5.5 units per acre. That translates to about 390 more houses on the available land. Urban sprawl, here we come.

In this month’s Chico Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Members Only, chamber President and CEO Jim Goodwin explains in his column the chamber’s reasons for existence. I found it useful, especially this part: “Not everyone seeking office understands business or the needs of business people. And certainly not everyone running for office even cares about your needs. That’s why volunteer leaders in the Chamber give up their time to interview all the candidates seeking office and endorse those they believe will be friendly to business needs and concerns.” Currently four of the seven councilmembers—Bertagna, Wahl, Herbert and Kirk—have the chamber’s stamp of approval. There is nothing wrong with the chamber making political endorsements. We do it. What we don’t do is ask the City Council for money each year. That would complicate our relationship.

Next month the City Council votes to dole out the city’s annual funding for community organizations, including the chamber, which is traditionally the largest recipient. Last week the council’s Finance Committee—Wahl, Bertagna (sitting in for a conflicted-out Holcombe) and Mayor Scott Gruendl—made its recommendations, which it will pass on to the full council. The chamber wants $118,948—by far the most requested. City Manager Tom Lando recommends it get $100,000, but the Finance Committee is recommending the full amount. Remember, Wahl and Bertagna have both received the chamber’s endorsement blessings. Gruendl has not. We complain about this every year. The chamber can say what it will to defend itself—it provides a service for which it is paid: unabashed city boosterism. But the fact is it should either stop asking the city for money or else stop endorsing City Council candidates. Simple.