Keep houses out of hills

At a Sept. 20 City Council meeting, Councilman Steve Bertagna warned that the only thing likely to allow the city to escape a developer’s lawsuit was the “kindness of his heart.” Two months later that developer, Tom Fogarty, apparently feeling heartburn rather than kindness, filed his suit naming the city, its mayor and three of its councilmembers as defendants.

The suit basically says the city illegally diminished the property value of Fogarty’s 340-acre Oak Valley housing development in eastern Chico when the council prevented him from building 160 houses in the foothills, making him cluster them on lower elevations. Fogarty says the city’s action diluted the value of the property—some of which was once part of a former city/county burn dump—by $17 million.

Fogarty is looking to sell the property, which with development approval in place greatly enhances its worth. The OK to build 160 houses with a great view of the valley adds significantly to its value, but at a cost the rest of us will be forced to pay. We’re glad the council, led by Councilman Andy Holcombe and supported by Mayor Scott Gruendl, Ann Schwab and Maureen Kirk, altered Fogarty’s plans in order to protect the foothills from creeping sprawl.

As we read it, the city’s General Plan calls for the preservation of the foothills; one of its major goals “is to preserve and enhance the natural environment and ensure that long-term growth does not adversely affect environmental resources.” We’ve already learned a lesson, we’d like to think, provided by the unchecked mitigation process that led to the building of houses in Canyon Oaks that look down upon Bidwell Park, ruining the view for park visitors. Shouldn’t have happened but it did. Let’s not allow it to happen again. If Fogarty, or whomever buys his acreage, wants to build homes there, make them play by the rules of the General Plan.

And a word of caution to the city: Don’t use the protection of closed-door sessions to make policy that otherwise would require public input and debate. There is a precedent. A closed-session decision by the city of Malibu to approve a development that did not conform with zoning law was recently voided by the Court of Appeal. The court said the city could not use the state’s open-meeting law, which allows closed-session “discussion” of pending litigation, to make decisions that can only legally be made in open session. It is much too easy, and tempting, to make public policy behind closed doors.