How’d that house get there?
Park Commission looks to safeguard Bidwell Park from further loss of viewshed
A week after the Chico City Council voted to limit housing development into the foothills along Highway 32, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission moved to do the same thing along the south rim of Bidwell Park.
But in this case, the damage is already done.
“At this point all we can do is make the best of a bad situation,” Planning Director Kim Seidler told the parks commission last March.
Seidler was talking about the appearance in the last two years of a small group of million-dollar homes that are now clearly visible from Upper Park Road where it runs past Horseshoe Lake and the observatory. And there are more currently under construction in the gated Canyon Oaks area which, when completed, will afford the owners spectacular views of the park.
How did this happen? How were developers able to encroach onto the sacred cliffs of Chico’s prized park?
“It was either through incompetence, or, because we are dealing with million-dollar homes, greed,” suggested local environmentalist John Merz. “Neither one is a very good excuse.”
Canyon Oaks, a tony development approved in 1986, features the posh and private Canyon Oaks Country Club and is home to Rep. Wally Herger, R—Chico.
Right now there is plenty of construction banging away behind the walls of this gated community as the last phase of the development is getting ready for build-out.
“The horse has left the barn,” Seidler told the commission last spring. “It’s hard to close the door on these now.”
Originally, Seidler said, a wide swath of open land along the south canyon rim kept the new houses out of the view of park visitors
The final environmental impact report of the Canyon Oaks development stated that, with the required setbacks, houses would not be seen from high-use areas like Horseshoe Lake.
However, accommodating the threatened checkerbloom plant in 2001 pushed the project toward the canyon rim. The documentation of the plant in the original EIR was faulty and when the time came to start building, greater concentrations of the plant were discovered, resulting in the shifting of the houses to the north.
After that, Seidler said, small individual mistakes led to the one big “mistake” that has resulted in the houses being visible from the park floor.
Steve Evans, former general manager of the Butte Environmental Council, said he took part in a referendum drive in 1987 to overturn the city’s approval of Canyon Oaks.
“Right as we did that the [state] law changed about how referendums and petitions appear on the ballot,” he said. “The law said the referendum language had to include the entire resolution you were challenging.”
Even so, project opponents still met with the project backers.
“We sat down with the developer and said if they’d keep the houses out of the saddle [an area of the south rim just above the golf course] we’d drop the referendum. But by then we’d turned in the signatures and when we did that it wasn’t our referendum anymore.”
Evans said a project opponent threatened to sue if BEC dropped the referendum, which qualified for the ballot before being tossed because of the language problems.
If the environmentalists, and later, Upper Park visitors, were the losers, the victors were the people who now own the million-dollar houses with the million-dollar views.
Seidler agreed with commission chair Jim Walker that the houses, now visible, do not meet with the EIR’s requirements.
This week the parks commission approved a new policy that, with final adoption by the City Council, will establish a sphere of influence beyond the park’s boundaries, covering an area within 1,000 feet from the boundaries of Middle and Upper Bidwell Park and preserving the park from “visual, aesthetic and auditory intrusions.”
The policy would be implemented as an amendment to the park’s Master Management Plan, which itself is being revised and is currently in the form of a 300-page draft document.
The new policy would grant the parks commission the opportunity to review and comment on development proposals within the sphere and recommend mitigations.
The matter will next be taken up by the City Council.