Relative density

Question: When is a subdivision that consists of 32 single-family houses on 3.75 acres—7.5 units per acre—not as dense as it would first appear? Answer: When those units are half-million-dollar homes. That was the math lesson learned at this week’s Chico City Council meeting. For years the liberals and conservatives have fought over the density levels of the various zoned residential properties in Chico. The General Plan, adopted in 1994, calls for high densities as a way to slow urban sprawl away from the city’s center. But when former Councilman and present Assemblyman Rick Keene became mayor, he led an assault on the plan’s calls for higher densities—the house-buying public won’t purchase homes on such small lots, Keene’s developer buddies declared. Recently, however, the liberals, who until recently had regained control of the council, upped those densities to their original level.

Now comes the case of the Kentfield Parc (yes, that’s how the developer spells “park”) subdivision to be built on a vacant lot—infill property—off First Avenue about a quarter-mile east of Highway 99. Last month the Planning Commission approved the development—32 houses on 3.75 acres. Neighbors appealed the approval to the council for various reasons, including the idea the density level was too high and did not fit with the established neighborhood. Neighbor, former City Manager and potential City Council candidate Fred Davis told the council the overriding policy of the General Plan was to “preserve the scale and character of established neighborhoods” when considering subdivisions. And initially Councilman Dan Herbert agreed, saying that if he lived in a house on a quarter-acre of land, as many in the area do, he wouldn’t want “ticky-tacky lots” next to him. “That stinks,” he said. Councilmember Steve Bertagna agreed, saying the council was on a “slippery slope” with this density business. But then Karen Van Ness of Bidwell Realty got up and addressed the council. She said making infill developments match existing densities is close to impossible. Then she said something that changed the whole complexion of the issue. These homes, she said, “are not low-end rental units.” Indeed, she said, they will sell for $400,000 to $450,000, depending on their square-footage, which runs 1,500 to 2,400. The target buyer, said developer Robert Fisher, is age 40 to 60, tired of yard work, and wants privacy and security.

Suddenly Herbert was OK with the density because this was, in his words, “an upper-end project.” Most of the neighbors who appealed the Planning Commission’s approval did so not because of the density, but because of the design and what it would do to traffic in the area. Todd Hall said the commission had not listened to the neighbors on issues of traffic. Councilmember Scott Gruendl called the subdivision a “self-contained world.” He called it a “missed opportunity” but added it was inappropriate for the council to redesign the project. But that didn’t stop Bertagna from making a few changes with lot alignments before the council approved the project 4-2, with Gruendl and Dan Nguyen-Tan voting no.

“We are angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration of this country.” Words of a soldier in Iraq? Nope. That’s Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry from the book The New Soldier, published in 1971. A friend of ours recently checked the hardcover out of the Butte County Library. The book’s authors are Kerry and “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” It chronicles the vets’ week long stay in Washington, D.C., protesting the failed policies of the Nixon administration in Southeast Asia. Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, that the vets only hope was “to conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country this last ten years and more, so when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”