Rancho goodbye-o

A battle that began more than two decades ago, peaked in 1988 and flared up a couple of times over the next 10 years, has finally ended. The 788 acres of land that lie just north of Bidwell Park near the Upper Park entrance will be rezoned as open space, ending any chance of residential development, at least for now. On Jan. 27 the Chico City Council, at the urging of locals, including veterans of the fight that created the slogan “No Way, San Jose,” voted 4–3 to amend the General Plan and rezone the property. In 1997 the city purchased the property for $7 million to avoid potential lawsuits from either the former property owner, Crocker Development, which wanted some return on the sewer fees it had paid, or the opponents who wanted the land kept free of houses.

Back in 1982 the first subdivision for the land now known as Bidwell Ranch was proposed. It would consist of 4,700 units and house 10,000 to 15,000 people. Too much, too close to the park, critics said, and the plans went nowhere. Three years later Crocker took over and proposed building 2,994 units and got the council’s approval in ’87. That’s when the war really began. The “No Way San Jose” group, led by Kelly Meagher, launched a referendum, qualified it for the June 1988 ballot and then won by a nearly 60 to 40 percent margin, despite Crocker’s pouring $200,000 into defeating the measure. A few years later another proposal came forward, a more modest 1,500 units and concessions for a lot of open space. Despite its having a more Chico-friendly name—Bidwell Ranch—opposition rose again. You don’t mess with Bidwell Park. This time Crocker turned the public relations over to local real-estate company Ingram & Shelton and made Bill Brouhard the point man. The battle raged, Crocker went bankrupt, and in the end the city bought the land, which it is still paying for by selling sewer capacity originally slated for that development to others that have sprung up north of East Avenue.

A few years ago there was some talk of asking the Federal Aviation Administration to purchase the land as a way of maintaining the flight path intregrity of the Chico Municipal Airport, which sits just to the north and would have been threatened by development. That idea was kicked around again this week by conservative councilmembers, who didn’t want to see that land taken off the list of places where the housing stock could be replenished. But Bob Grierson, the airport’s manager, confirmed that ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the FAA buys only property adjacent to airports as a security measure against terrorism. Chances of its buying Bidwell Ranch anytime soon are remote. The conservatives say that, because of all the pressure to grow, we need that land to remain viable for building.

At this meeting many of the old guard showed up to testify in favor of putting the acreage out to pasture, as it were. Former Councilmembers Michael McGinnis and David Guzzetti both spoke, as did Meagher. Guzzetti argued that the pressure to build and grow was the very reason this land should remain open, and we should “not pounce on what is available” for housing. “Let’s be different, let us grow, but let us do it with character,” he said.

I didn’t make it to the Chico Chamber of Commerce 66th Annual Dinner. I have a good reason, though. I wasn’t invited. However, I would like to report the recipients of the 2003 Ted Hubert Memorial Scholarship Award. This year the award went to Chico High senior Rafael Cisneros, who says his favorite class is welding. He says he will use the scholarship by entering the Butte College Automotive Program next year. It’s refreshing to see the scholarship go to somebody who prefers welding over macro-economics. Better it go to a guy who can bond metal together and fix your car instead of someone who plans someday to swindle your pension funds. Anyway, congratulations, Rafael.