Plan hits a pothole
Critics say the county is developing its new general plan ‘backwards’ and lacks a vision of where development should go
It’s a classic chicken-or-egg problem, and it just may derail Butte County’s new general plan in a major way.
The issue has to do with where to house the 100,000 people the county is projected to add to its population by 2030. Opinions differ on how the development that will be needed should be planned.
Currently, the county is delineating all possible growth areas with the idea that they can serve as the basis for creating a vision of where actual development should take place. But critics say this is giving developers and landowners a foot in the door, and that the county should create a vision of how it wants to grow before talking about specific growth areas.
The problem surfaced when the county Planning Commission met at County Center in Oroville last Friday (Sept. 28) for its first “study session” of the new general plan. The idea was to see how the process is going one year into its three-year schedule and sign off on the progress so far.
Some of the commissioners, like several audience members who spoke, were upset and frustrated by what they saw.
They were concerned about the way the county’s general-plan team, headed by Development Services Director Tim Snellings, and the plan consultant, Berkeley-based Design, Community & Environment, was going about the process.
So far, the team has held a series of 19 community meetings throughout the county as well as several meetings of a Citizens Advisory Committee. From these meetings, they have delineated all the areas in which growth seemed likely or possible or, in some cases, landowners had said they were contemplating development.
Of the approximately 1 million acres in Butte County, they thus came up with 118,000 acres, divided into 43 “study areas,” where growth was either possible or had been proposed.
Under this model, such rural areas as Nance Canyon, which is south of Neal Road and east of Highway 99, and some 6,000 acres northeast of Chico owned by Dan Kohrdt’s Loafer Creek LLC, are among the study areas.
That doesn’t mean they will be developed, Snellings stressed, only that the landowners have participated in the process. The goal, Snellings said, was to get landowners involved from the beginning. “We’ve been telling them for years, ‘Work with the general plan',” he explained. “We want them engaged in the process.”
The policies will come during the next phase of the process, Snellings told the commission. Another series of community workshops will look at the 43 study areas in terms of the development constraints on them and will simultaneously develop a package of policies guiding future zoning decisions.
By “development constraints,” Snellings meant all those factors that might make development problematic, from wetlands, wildfire risk and slope angle to lack of water and the presence of good farming soil. The next series of workshops will use these constraints, and the policies that emerge from the discussions, to cut the study areas down to the 10,000 to 20,000 buildable acres needed to accommodate the county’s projected population increase.
Each of the study areas, he noted, would be approached in terms of three alternatives.
No. 1, the “no-change alternative,” would be to leave the area as designated in the current general plan.
No. 2 would be to give highest priority to compact development near existing urban services.
No. 3, the “rural extension” alternative, would allow for new development in rural areas.
To several people in the audience, this approach seemed “backwards.” Jon Luvaas, who chairs the Chico Planning Commission but stressed that he was speaking as an individual, said it would be more appropriate to “start with policies and then apply them to the land.”
“Why are we even talking about rural extension?” he asked, adding there was plenty of room for development in Chico and the other cities. “With housing prices today and the cost of oil going up, rural development is not going to work.” The clear trend, in Chico and elsewhere, is toward more compact development close to urban services, he said.
Others said there had been too much emphasis on keeping the process on its scheduled timeline, to the detriment of the Citizens Advisory Committee’s ability to reach consensus on issues or even finish its work.
Chico attorney Jeff Carter, a member of the CAC, complained that the process seemed “designed to skirt the primary issue, which is how are we going to accommodate growth.” The CAC, he charged, is not being given sufficient time to make choices and recommendations. He was echoed by Chicoan Todd Hall, another member of the CAC. “I feel like a bystander,” he said.
Snellings said he agreed with a lot of the comments, especially those about the CAC.
One person strongly supported the current approach. He was Michael Evans, a member of the CAC who also served on Oroville’s citizens committee for its new general plan. DC&E was the consultant on that plan, too, and used a similar process, he said, and it worked well.
“We need to allow a range of possibilities to be considered,” Evans argued, “or else the plan loses credibility.” What will happen, he said, is that “we will see a blending of alternatives, just as we did in Oroville. … This process will work. We’re going to get to the end of it.”
Others, however, worried that the process lacked a vision of where and how people wanted the county to grow. Elizabeth Devereaux, a Chico resident who served on the city’s 1994 General Plan Task Force, noted that Chico had developed a “community design element” for its plan and used it to envision the future.
Such visioning is important, she said. “What do we want this county to look like in 23 years?” she asked. Are we considering changing demographics in the form of more retired couples and single people? Are we considering gas prices, global warming and the habitat conservation plan now being developed for the county?
“We need more time to develop this vision,” she insisted. “We need a course correction right now, to give us time to regroup a bit.”
Others sounded similar concerns, and the term “course correction” was used several more times, including by Rick Leland, the commissioner representing District 4 (Richvale/Durham). “There should be some principles about how we select potential growth areas,” he said.
Commissioner Chuck Nelson, who represents District 3 (Chico), also questioned the process: “Why do we need to approve these study areas?”
Joanna Jansen, a planner with DC&E, replied that the study areas are “the alternatives. It’s important to let people know this is the time and the process for them to participate.”
Leland reiterated that he believed the county should come up with principles and policies before selecting the study areas. Nelson seemed to agree with him, and Chairwoman Nina Lambert was leaning in that direction. Only District 5 Commissioner Fernando Marin, of Paradise, seemed happy with the process so far, (Oroville-area Commissioner Harrel Wilson was absent).