Open land

At long last, the patch of land known as Bidwell Ranch is on its way to becoming permanent open space, maybe. The Chico City Council voted 4-3 to rezone the 750 acres of city-owned property this week, much to the delight of people who think open spaces are worthy in and of themselves, and much to the chagrin of those who think undeveloped land is a waste of space. The councilmembers against the open space idea—Dan Herbert, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna—argued that the city could sell the property for as much as $50 million and use that money to develop our city park system, which in many cases amounts to weedy lots in residential neighborhoods. Why? Because we don’t have enough money to make them into manicured parks suitable for the children. The councilmembers who think open space is worth something—Ann Schwab, Andy Holcombe, Scott Gruendl and Maureen Kirk—suggest that the parks are undeveloped because certain members of past councils worked to keep developer fees too low. Herbert scoffed at the notion. He said as far as he could recall conservatives had held power for only four of the last 20 years here in Chico. Fact is he and Bertagna and now-Assemblyman Rick Keene worked feverishly to keep developer fees down. A couple of times they even tried, with the help of former councilmembers Sheryl Lange and, before her, Bill Johnston, to roll them back.

Now that the council majority has moved to temporarily preserve the space—it can always be rezoned for, hell, manufacturing by a future council—the question arises: Will somebody try to qualify a referendum and put the decision to a vote, much like the parking garage opponents are doing? Thirty days, kids. The problem is the council majority gets to word any ballot measure. I’m thinking the folks who would like to sell the property to developer Rick Coletti, the only guy who made an offer when the city asked for them, would word the measure something like this: “Should the city sell part of Bidwell Ranch, a useless collection of weeds and mud puddles, for $50 million to provide much needed housing and provide parks for our children to help keep them off drugs and out of our already-clogged prison system? Huh?”

I just can’t seem to write this column without mentioning the damned parking garage to be built on top of the Saturday Farmers’ Market. Here’s the thing—the Downtown Chico Business Association sends out yellow flyers to announce upcoming parking structure workshops. Back in May the DCBA flyer sounded desperate: “The Future of Downtown Depends On It,” said the oddly capitalized message. This month the urgency was toned down (though it was expressed in all caps) to: “THE GOAL IS CONVENIENT PARKING.” So we’ve gone from survival to convenience. If the referendum to undo the extended parking meter hours, which were finalized by a council vote this week, is successful, it may well signal the end of the road for the parking garage, at least this time around.

Speaking of the DCBA and the parking garage, this week the City Council awarded the association $38,400 in community funding ($10,000 more than it asked for) but told it not to use any of that money toward pro-parking-garage propaganda. DCBA Executive Director Katrina Davis said most of the money goes toward its community work program, which is minors caught by police in possession of beer and then told by the courts to pick up trash on the downtown streets. Davis assured the council the money from the city wouldn’t be used to pay for things like the yellow fliers. Other organizations receiving funding generated by the transient occupancy tax (taxes on local motels and hotels) include the Chamber of Commerce’s $118,948 (what it asked for) and the Chico Economic Planning Corporation’s (CEPCO) $40,000 (it wanted $48,000). On the other hand, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce asked for $68,970 and got $5,000, and the Hispanic Business Association requested $85,791 but also fell somewhat short with its allotment of $5,000. Councilmember Holcombe raised the question of conflict when he noted the Caucasian Chamber of Commerce makes political endorsements, including candidates for the very council that votes to give the chamber this money. I wonder if the Hispanic Chamber will start playing that game.