Paving paradise

City Council lays groundwork to cross Comanche Creek

Chicoan Emily Alma stands on a bridge on Park Avenue that gives a peek at the riparian habitat of Comanche Creek.

Chicoan Emily Alma stands on a bridge on Park Avenue that gives a peek at the riparian habitat of Comanche Creek.

Photo By melissa daugherty

Pull up a satellite image of Chico on the Internet, and just south of the Barber Neighborhood lies a landscape defined by white rectangles surrounded by a sea of gray and brown.

Those are the colors of the concrete, asphalt, dirt and buildings situated along Park Avenue and within the Hegan Lane Business Park to the south. What stands out between the two very washed-out views is a meandering trail of dark green that runs in a westerly direction just south of where East Park Avenue meets Park Avenue.

Depending on who is asked, that region is either called Comanche Creek or Edgar Slough.

For activist Emily Alma, the waterway is a creek. Alma has lived at Ripara—a semi-rural property bordering Comanche Creek—for more than 20 years and is quite attached to the region. That’s why she’s so disappointed with the Chico City Council’s decision on Saturday (July 24) to approve the concept of connecting West Park Avenue with the business park by extending the roadway, and building a bridge, on a portion of nearby city-owned property.

“It’s just another example of what we humans do,” Alma said. “We put concrete down, and once we do, it’s not going to be reclaimed.”

The council’s 4-3 vote came during a special joint session with the Chico Planning Commission. It meant that the extension concept is slated to be included in the Chico 2030 General Plan. The document—now in draft form—is designed to provide a long-range policy framework for the growth and preservation of the city.

City leaders met on the weekend to discuss the traffic-circulation, downtown and economic-development elements of the draft. However, because of the controversial nature of roadway extensions, the panel spent the meeting’s entire six-plus hours focusing only on circulation. And, as expected, the West Park Avenue extension was the most talked-about item on the agenda. A majority of the 24 members of the public who addressed the panels voiced opposition to the plan.

Long-time Councilman Andy Holcombe appeared staunchly opposed to the plan, and cast a dissenting vote, along with Councilmen Scott Gruendl and Tom Nickell.

What’s so special about Comanche Creek?

When standing just inside the city-owned property, it’s hard to tell because noise from Park Avenue traffic is deafening. But farther west, a canopy of trees, including heritage oaks, sycamores and cottonwoods, provides a shady, peaceful habitat teeming with wild turkeys and other birds, and insects, such as dragonflies, including a small blue one that repeatedly landed on Alma.

But most residents haven’t seen the beauty of the property. After all, it’s fenced off. Alma is hoping that will change. For more than a year, she’s been part of a group called the Parks and Open Space Action Group—also known as the creeks group. Composed of activists, as well as local businesspeople and nearby residents, the team is advocating to make the area accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians. Alma envisions it with a couple of bike bridges, allowing employees from the business park easy access to and from work. The trails could help connect Chico’s already existing pathways.

“I really want to encourage people to get out of their cars,” she explained.

The group has varying interests when it comes to the expansion, however, so Alma said its members have agreed to disagree. Even now, Alma said she’s hoping the extension won’t make it into the final general plan.

Alma opposed a similar project about a decade ago. The so-called Otterson Drive Expansion was approved by the council as an amendment to the 1994 General Plan and subsequently repealed in a special election, after opponents organized a referendum. That was back in 2001, and she knew the proposal could eventually resurface. In fact, the council could have brought it back after only a year.

This time around, city staff suggested that a less-invasive route would be to cross the creek closer to Park Avenue, as opposed to the previous plan in which the roadway would traverse much of the length of the waterway. Its purpose, should it come to fruition, is to ease the traffic expected in the area in 20 years. The alternative would be to widen both Hegan Lane and the Midway to four lanes, according to Brendan Vieg, the city’s principal planner.

One of the arguments against those options is that construction could disturb a known toxic plume. Still, Alma, among others, including Butte County Supervisor Maureen Kirk, thinks this is the way to go. It makes more sense, Alma noted, to expand the other roads and clean up their man-made problems than to create pollution at a pristine site.

During the council’s discussion, one of the main justifications for the plan was that it would spur economic development by improving the accessibility of the area. Alma counters that keeping the riparian area free of the noise and air pollution associated with the extension and constructing a passive park would attract green-tech companies.

“How many business parks can say they are right next to a riparian area?” she asked. “We have to start working with nature and making our economy work with it.”