Just another expense?
Developer may have cut down trees without permit for the second time in three years
Three years ago the city of Chico fined developer Andy Meghdadi $22,000 for prematurely cutting down a number of walnut, eucalyptus and olive trees on his Nob Hill subdivision property between Eighth Street and Bruce Road in east Chico.
He had permission to remove the trees, but only on the condition that he wait until nesting season had ended for owls, red-tail hawks and Swainson’s hawks. He didn’t wait.
At the time the city came under fire for not having a policy in place to deal with such transgressions. Critics also argued that a $22,000 fine was chicken feed for the developer of a multimillion-dollar, 32-acre, 97-unit project.
Last week the News & Review started getting calls from people living near Meghdadi’s newest project, Terra Bella, off Bruce Road in the foothills east of Chico. They said a number of workers were cutting down what appeared to be large oak trees. They reported hearing the buzz of a chainsaws followed by the ground-shaking thuds of falling trees.
City planning staff, alerted by some of the same neighbors on March 19, initially told the callers that Meghdadi had permission to down a number of the trees on the property. By the third call, staff realized the trees were coming down in areas where they were not supposed to be touched.
When the city finally did investigate, it found many more trees had come down than the permit conditions allowed. That same day, the city issued a “stop-work order,” effectively silencing the saws.
“Staff was out there the entire day,” said Planning Director Kim Seidler. “Nothing’s been removed. Right now there are downed trees still in place.”
Seidler said the builder had been allowed to remove a certain number of trees, just about 10 percent, under the conditions of approval for the 59-acre, 166-unit, single-family housing project. It appeared workers had “substantially exceeded that number,” Seidler said.
It would also appear that trees on property away from the area of the main subdivision with potential to serve as open space, as approved by the Planning Commission, had also been removed without permission as directed by the conditions of approval.
“We believe this has occurred,” said Seidler. “In fact, it’s pretty clear that it has.”
Neighbors have described dozens of trees down, including some large oaks, across much of the property now in bloom with wildflowers. They said there are muddy tracks across the grassy knolls that would indicate downed trees have already been dragged off the property.
Tony Baptiste, the city’s community development director said, “We are in the process of having the urban forester and other staff members survey the number, size and health of the trees down.”
Preliminary reports, he said, indicated as many as 115 trees had been taken. Conditions for approval of the project allowed only the removal of a total of 33 trees, only 24 of which were to be oaks.
Just as with Nob Hill, Meghdadi purchased this project after the Planning Commission already had approved it for development. The project manager for the city, Pat Murphy, said Meghdadi took over about three years ago, about seven years after the process was initiated. This was at about the same time he got in trouble with his Nob Hill project.
Meghdadi was out of the state and unavailable for comment. Baptiste said that Meghdadi’s project manager, Bob Feeney, when contacted, “was not able to provide us with an explanation why this occurred.”
City Manager Tom Lando called the apparent violation “real flagrant” and questioned the need for such action.
“I believe a person can make a mistake like this once,” he said. “But I don’t know about a second time. And you have to wonder why you wouldn’t leave trees like this [to enhance the project].”
Meghdadi got into the development game fairly recently. He was once a high-ranking officer for Fleetwood motor homes and in the late 1980s was part-owner of LaSalles, a downtown bar. As a developer, he buys projects that have already gone through the many steps for approval—the Terra Bella project was launched in 1993. Buying a project later in the process removes much of the financial risk a developer would otherwise face when starting from scratch.
In January 1999, Meghdadi purchased the 32-acre subdivision called Benedict Ranch at East Eighth Avenue and Bruce Road and changed the name to Nob Hill. The purchase included a City Council-approved 97-unit subdivision map and all the attached conditions for development, including an agreement to hire an ornithologist to survey for raptors—indigenous birds of prey—that may or may not have been nesting in some of the 77 black-walnut, eucalyptus and olive trees on or adjacent to the property.
Instead, sometime in May, Meghdadi had the trees—including 27 on city property—removed as part of the project design. Though the trees were slated to come down, Meghdadi jumped the gun and did not adhere to the council’s conditions.
Three years ago, when he came before the City Council to determine his fine for cutting down trees prematurely, Meghdadi explained the conditions placed on the project amounted to a stack of paper “this high,” and he indicated a distance of a few inches using his thumb and forefinger.
He said he didn’t have time to read such a voluminous amount of information before getting the project started and that he was not aware of the raptor mitigation when he removed the trees.
The city ordered a work stoppage on that project, which had reached the grading process. At the time, Meghdadi said the stoppage was costing him $500 per day.
The council was encountering a problem it had never wrestled with before—how to penalize a developer for ignoring the conditions for a project’s approval. In the Nob Hill case, the question was, should the penalty send a message to other developers or should it have some rational connection to the birds who lost their nesting trees?
The statement, “Make the fine fit the crime,” was bandied about several times by councilmembers and staff. The council, which had no formal means to address such an offense, considered options ranging from invoking substitute mitigations, to a fine, to revoking the tentative map and making the developer start the process of gaining approval of the project from scratch.
Just the fact it was costing Meghdadi $500 a day, said Councilmember Rick Keene, constituted a “significant penalty.”
Based on the fact that the birds, had they been located, would have stayed as late as the end of September before taking flight, Councilmember Coleen Jarvis made a motion to fine Meghdadi $22,000. Jarvis said the fine came by multiplying $500 by 44 days, the number till the end of September. She figured had the birds been present, that is how much it would have cost the developer to wait until he could proceed with the grading, at least based on his figures as supplied by Keene.
The money went to two sources: $5,000 to the Chico Creek Nature Center for public education on raptors and $17,000 to a study of raptor presence in Upper Bidwell Park, a project already slated by the city.
Some in the audience criticized the council for having no policy in place to deal with developers who do not honor project conditions.
“What is your policy for violations?” asked longtime environmentalist John Merz, who said this was not an isolated incident.
“What should we do?” then-Mayor Steve Bertagna asked Merz.
Merz shot back, “What is your answer to us? What is your policy?”
At a subsequent special meeting by the council to discuss how to best monitor a project, staff reported it does not have the resources to continually monitor development projects to make sure they are staying within prescribed parameters as set by the city. As a result, the city would have to rely on the vigilance of neighbors keeping an eye on the work. It was the neighbors who first alerted the city to the Nob Hill violations.
“When the vigilant neighbors called, why were we dismissed [by the city]?” asked Terra Bella neighbor Marlene Pyshora. “We started calling about 10 o’clock that morning, but nobody showed up until 2:30 that afternoon.”
With the latest apparent violation, that question of city policy will no doubt be raised again. Another Terra Bella neighbor, Judy Reed, said neighbors are forming an association, have hired an attorney and are looking into possible legal action.
Though he could not say for sure, Seidler agreed that Meghdadi’s Nob Hill experience could well play a part in establishing a penalty in this latest case.
City Manager Lando suggested that action against Meghdadi this time around could include making him go back to square one on the permit process, which could prove enormously costly and greatly alter the design of the project.
And Community Development Director Baptiste used the word "severe" when the subject of possible punishment was introduced.