Leapfrogging in Oroville

Developer proposes large urban-style subdivision miles from town

HOMES ON THE RANGE <br>David Noel stands before the 421-acre site where a Pleasanton developer wants to build 2,400 new living units.

David Noel stands before the 421-acre site where a Pleasanton developer wants to build 2,400 new living units.

Photo By Robert Speer

What zone is this?
Owners of 14 large lots in the Par Four subdivision would see their zoning changed to R-1 (medium residential) under the Oro Bay annexation plan, allowing a potential total of 306 units on their combined 76 acres.

Just a hundred yards past the site where David Noel and his wife, Patricia, are planning to build their dream home on a 16-acre parcel overlooking the Thermalito Afterbay, Noel stopped his car at the end of the gravel road. Ahead of him a hawk circled over an empty field several hundred acres in size.

“That’s where they want to put 2,400 houses,” he said to his passenger. “It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

The Noels are among the approximately 40 residents of this rural area four miles west of Oroville who are sounding alarms these days about a big urban-style residential development that has been proposed for their neighborhood. It’s a classic case of leapfrog development, they insist, and is entirely inappropriate for the area.

The proposal would put up to 2,400 residential units, with a build-out population of about 7,000 people, on 421 acres of gently undulating land between the Oroville airport and the Afterbay. It is part of a larger plan for the area, known as the Oro Bay Specific Plan and Annexation Area Project, that would add 779 acres, including the Noels’ parcel, to the city of Oroville.

Currently the area is unincorporated county land zoned for five- to 15-acre “ranchettes,” and houses are sprinkled sparsely about the rolling countryside, where hawks, snakes and field mice far outnumber people.

The developer is Mission Valley Properties, which is based in Pleasanton. Its plan is to “cluster” the housing on approximately 324 acres and reserve 97 acres for recreational and public uses, including a school site and a park site. About 50 acres of the open space would be used to conserve wetlands features and for stormwater detention ponds. No land is designated for commercial use. The overall average density would be seven homes per acre.

It’s hard to argue with the “leapfrog” charge, if by the term is meant development that skips over open space. There’s plenty of open space between this project and the nearest urban area—more than two miles’ worth. In Chico, it would be like proposing a California Park-style subdivision for 7,000 people on 421 acres along Keefer Road.

As the map shows, the site is four miles from downtown Oroville, separated from it largely by open space and the Oroville airport.

Courtesy Of Pacific Municipal

Yes, it looks like leapfrog development, said Eric Teitelman, who directs the city of Oroville’s Community Development/Public Works Department, but that’s “not necessarily” the case. Interviewed by phone, he said the area is within the city’s official sphere of influence, which designates land that is expected eventually to be annexed, so technically the land is reserved for urban development.

“Today it looks like leapfrog development,” he went on, “but there’s a sewer connection to the Linkside development a half-mile away. The area is going to fill in” over the next 15 to 20 years, he said.

Linkside is a small, yet-to-be-built subdivision adjacent to the Table Mountain Golf Course, which lies between the project area and the airport. Streets are in, but further development has halted. The airport is within city limits, but the area surrounding it remains in the county.

The sewer line was put in primarily to serve the airport. Teitelman said he doesn’t know whether it’s large enough to serve thousands of new residents. A study is being done, he said, and if the line needs to be upgraded, the developer will have to pay for it.

That goes for Highway 162 as well. The nearest stores, not to mention jobs, are four miles away down the highway, so the two-lane road will have to absorb a great deal of traffic in coming years. “We’ll be looking at how to generate a wider highway,” Teitelman said, adding that the developer will be at least partially responsible for the expense.

But does it make sense, sphere of influence notwithstanding, to build such a project that far from town? No, answered Chico Planning Commissioner Jon Luvaas, who’s studied local planning and development for three decades. “It’s nonsense,” he said. Whether a project is a leapfrog development “has nothing to do with jurisdiction. It’s about leaping over open space, rather than developing incrementally.”

The project also potentially has significant environmental impacts, said Barbara Vlamis, director of the Butte Environmental Council, who is familiar with the site. “There are quite a few special-status species in the area,” she said, noting specifically the presence of burrowing owls, fairy shrimp in vernal pools and giant garter snakes.

Then there are the drainage problems. The project proposes to create three drainage ponds to catch the runoff from streets and driveways and to treat the water before it goes into the Afterbay, but neighbors are skeptical. The developers of Linkside created such a pond—without permits, incidentally—and it overflowed this winter, they point out.

The annexation must go before the Local Agency Formation Commission for approval before it is considered by the city. On a parallel track, the city has commissioned an environmental-impact report for the City Council to consider.

Residents of the area, who bought their lots believing the county’s rural-density zoning would continue to apply, are gearing up to contest it in every venue. “We all built to a set of rules according to the county,” said Jim Murray, who lives on Par Four Road, next to the proposed site. “Now it’s as if rules don’t matter.”