Planning the future

Meeting on Chico’s general-plan update predicts upcoming City Council issues

Unfinished business:
The City Council and Planning Commission have concluded discussions on the elements of the draft general plan. However, they will meet jointly again on Oct. 19 to go over any additional tweaks.

The special joint meetings of the Chico City Council and Planning Commission to craft a new general plan have served as a medium for community members to voice their concerns and priorities related to the city’s future. They’ve also foreshadowed a couple of controversial issues the council likely will tackle in the coming months outside of the general-plan process.

During the latest special meeting on Tuesday (Sept. 28), the panels and city staff spent more than three hours tweaking the policy language in the Open Space & Environment Element of the draft plan. The subjects of air quality and urban farming surfaced repeatedly.

Chico resident Luke Anderson, a staunch advocate for clean air, took the city to task last week at the regular City Council meeting for not already addressing the problem of wintertime fine-particulate air pollution. And he was present again during the general-plan session, urging the panel to strengthen the document’s air-quality policy.

Anderson told city leaders they need to decide if they are serious about reducing air pollution. He said that the draft plan does not include the scientific methods necessary to indicate successful mitigation. City leaders needed to contemplate whether the policies as drafted will lead to clean air, he said.

“If they don’t, don’t they need to go back to the drawing board?” he asked.

Chico has been in a holding pattern when it comes to the issue. The City Council decided in February 2009 to recommend to the Board of Governors of the Butte County Air Quality Management District that it institute mandatory no-burn days in Chico during times that pollution levels exceed federal standards. The rules would apply only to old, antiquated wood-burning devices and fireplaces in the city’s sphere of influence.

The governors failed to adopt the rules.

That was a little over a year ago, and the city has yet to take up the issue again.

Gail Williams, the BCAQMD’s senior air-quality planner, told city staff that the draft general plan was a “very good document.” Still, she too expressed that it needed work to better emphasize smart-growth planning as a priority and address existing problems such as pollution-causing idling vehicles.

Ultimately, after lengthy discussion, a majority of the panel agreed that the city should ensure regulations related to air quality are met in spite of the fact that it’s the BCAQMD’s job to do so.

The meeting was the final of six sessions over the past six months to go over the document. Noise, public safety, and cultural resources and historic preservation were also part of the meeting’s agenda, though the environmental and open-space element, predictably, took center stage. Protection for water resources, the Greenline and riparian habitats were among the many topics brought forward by the public.

A number of speakers wanted the document to note the importance of urban farming.

Local activist Karen Laslo expressed concerns about losses of farming to development. She then pointed to Chico High School’s farming project as an invaluable learning tool for students. “It just goes to show you how people want to grow their own food. It’s a big movement now,” she said.

Laslo noted that the students would not have the opportunity to farm on the property near Henshaw Road had it been transformed into an elementary school, as was originally intended.

Chico State professor Mark Stemen called upon city staff members who had drafted a policy calling for a buffer between ag and urban uses to change their views on the issue. “We must embrace urban farming,” he said. “We need a vision where food grows around us.”

Stemen championed a local, organic food system that’s reliant on the sun rather than oil. He said it was a shame that local schools rely on processed foods transported in from outside regions. He noted that the urban-food movement isn’t limited to gardens. It also includes chickens and rabbits, he said.

Toward the end of the meeting, City Manager Dave Burkland confirmed that the city would be discussing the city’s controversial municipal code regarding chickens on Oct. 19.

The other big news of the night was that the draft environmental-impact report on the general plan would be released for public review today (Sept. 30). City staff expect to present city leaders with a newly revised version of the draft general plan in January.