Red tags, red flags

Two-home project in Butte Creek Canyon hides larger proposed development

Making the grade: County inspectors put a stop work order on this project in Butte Creek Canyon, which was undertaken without a grading permit. Some canyon neighbors said the two-home project is just the first step being taken by property owners who wish to build 18 homes on an adjoining piece of property.

Making the grade: County inspectors put a stop work order on this project in Butte Creek Canyon, which was undertaken without a grading permit. Some canyon neighbors said the two-home project is just the first step being taken by property owners who wish to build 18 homes on an adjoining piece of property.

Photo By Josh Indar

No-growth canyon: Going back as far as 1981, canyon residents have fought to keep their quiet, rural hillsides free of major developments. They’ve been successful for the most part, killing a 75-condo project that had been previously approved by county supervisors in the early ‘80s and then, a few years later, fighting off a 14-home project at the same location.

Drive up Centerville Road through Butte Creek Canyon, high above the Honey Run Bridge, and you’ll see it—a huge notch in the hillside where workers have carved a dirt driveway straight up toward the towering buttes above. Look a little closer and you’ll see a neon-orange card nailed to a tree by the side of the road, a so-called “red tag” left by county Public Works inspectors that has the effect of stopping any construction project in its tracks.

But it’s what you won’t see that bothers canyon residents.

The stop-work order pertains to a project that would put two homes on two 40-acre parcels, each sharing a common driveway. But some adjacent property owners fear the project is a stealth development meant to clear the way for an 18-home subdivision that, if realized, could change the character of the neighborhood forever.

Canyon resident Mark Lightcap said he was approached by the owner of the property above Centerville Road nearly two years ago and told about a plan to build 18 homes in the hillside near his own property. Such a project would impact traffic and noise in the area, require the widening of a fire road and partially transform much of the bucolic 200-acre parcel it would be built on.

“My wife and I just sort of gasped,” Lightcap said. “Going from nothing at all to all that just seemed kind of scary to us. We told him we appreciated him meeting with us but we would not be in favor of that.”

The owners of the property are a father-and-son team made up of Dan and Ben Allen, who run Leaseback Asset Management Ltd., a Poway development company. The property is registered under another Allen company, Signalized Intersections, LLC. Dan Allen, the father, reportedly made his fortune building Wal-Mart stores and is hoping to retire in the canyon. When reached for comment, Ben Allen, Dan’s son, at first said there were only plans to build one home on the property. Then he admitted that two homes would eventually be built, each on their own parcel. But when asked about plans to build an 18-home development on 200 acres of adjacent property, he said, “I think I’d better say ‘no comment.'”

According to Allen’s project engineer, plans call for the 18 homes to be clustered in small groups around knolls, where they will be less visible to each other, as well as to drivers on Centerville Road and existing neighbors. Each home will be in excess of 2,000 square feet and will share access from a single driveway, possibly linked with Center Gap Road. Open space easements would ensure large areas remain undeveloped, and care would be taken to leave creeks and trees undisturbed, he said.

The issue was brought to the News & Review’s attention by canyon resident Geoffrey Fricker, who said he is concerned about mud from the two-home project finding its way into Butte Creek, a prime spawning ground for spring-run Chinook salmon. He also is worried about the possible disturbance of Native American acorn-grinding sites, and has heard from neighbors that at least 20 oak trees in the area had been marked for cutting. When Fricker inquired about it to county planners, he said he was told that the county was aware of the work being done but lacked the resources to oversee it.

“I think a lot of neighbors were concerned but… we assumed they had gotten the necessary permits,” he said. “I became more concerned when I found out they had not gotten a grading permit.”

County public works director Mike Crump confirmed the two-home project was red-tagged Aug. 26, coincidentally the same day the CN&R called the county to ask about the project.

Crump was unaware of (or at least didn’t mention) any plans to build 18 additional homes in the area, which is zoned as Foothill-Residential, a designation that provides for one home per lot, with a minimum lot size of 5 acres. But he said it is becoming more common for developers to start a project without pulling county permits, especially in rural areas where inspectors are scarce. Contractors have long complained that building permits take months longer to procure in Butte County than in neighboring counties.

“With the pace of development and the price of land going up it’s become more economically viable to build homes in more out-of-the-way places,” Crump said. “We’re getting more complaints from neighbors, but then a lot of times [builders] actually have the permits.”

Gary Hunt, whose company, Gilbert Engineering, was hired to cut the driveway for the two-home project, said the county gave him the go-ahead, issuing an encroachment permit which indicated the grade, width and length of the driveway.

“To me, that’s saying ‘go ahead and build your road,'” he said, noting that his original plans called for a much shallower cut into the hillside. “The only way to get into that property is to do what we’re doing. The bureaucracy’s become so cumbersome they didn’t tell us we needed a grading permit.”

Hunt said he has already applied for the next batch of permits and will comply with all county regulations. He also confirmed that the Allens hope to build 18 homes on the adjoining property. But he said neighbors are jumping to conclusions about the project, which he said would have a “minimal impact” on the area.

“Dan Allen is only doing this because he wants to live in a nice, natural setting,” Hunt said. “We are saving trees wherever we can. If there’s a rock outcropping we leave it. We’re not trying to trash the environment.”

Having been in the homebuilding business for some three decades, Hunt said, he has heard—and even sympathized with—neighbors’ complaints before.

“Everybody’s suspicious of developers until they want to build their own house,” he said. “They bought their lots but they didn’t buy their view. One thing I will say is that they are getting a lot better than what they would get if Dan Allen would’ve sold the property to someone else.”

Fricker said he didn’t object to anyone building homes in the area as long as they follow the rules.

“I’m not against development but the checks and balances are there for a reason,” he said. “One thing I would hope that comes out of this is that rogue developers won’t think they can just go do things without going through the process.”