Revisiting the Greenline

Politically it’s a hot potato, but the time may be right for tweaking Chico’s famous zoning boundary

Photo By Tom Angel

Standing on the corner of Second and Walnut streets, with cars and trucks roaring by on busy Highway 32, it’s hard to believe that only four or five blocks to the west, almost immediately behind nearby Rosedale Elementary School, Chico ends.

Just like that.

From there all the way to the Sacramento River it’s farm country, row after row of almonds and walnuts and other crops.

To any student of California development patterns, it’s amazing to find working orchards this close to the core of a growing town. In almost any other city, these orchards long ago would have been lost to farming forever.

Only one thing has saved this rich farm land from the bulldozer: Chico’s famous Greenline.

Since the city of Chico and Butte County approved it, in 1982, the zigzagging map line separating urban development from farm land on the town’s west side has been inviolate. When it comes to planning and zoning decisions, it’s the closest thing to a sacred cow on the books, and it’s safe to say that it’s protected thousands of acres of superb agricultural land from development.

Today, however, pressure is mounting to take another look at the Greenline, with the idea of modifying it in order to open up more land for development, and even some long-time supporters are bending in that direction.

The reason is easy to see. As anyone who has tried to buy a house lately can tell you, there are too few houses for sale. It’s a seller’s market, with many houses being purchased the day they are offered. And prices are spiking upward faster than at any time since 1990-91, the last time so few houses were available for purchase.

There are many reasons why housing prices are rising, but it’s hard to disagree with those who argue, as local developers do, that the law of supply and demand has something to do with it. Part of the reason fewer houses are on the market is because not enough new houses are being built, developers say. And the reason they’re not being built is because there isn’t enough land available for building in Chico.

It’s more complex than that, of course, as we’ll see below. What’s important here is that a consensus seems to exist that, regardless of the complexities of the situation, Chico is short on developable land.

Last year the Chico City Council began looking at a number of areas that could be opened up for development. Among them are three areas, totaling slightly more than 1,700 acres, on the agriculture side of the Greenline. If all were developed, they could accommodate nine or 10 years’ worth of growth at Chico’s projected rates. The city has hired a consulting company to do a feasibility study of those three areas, and its report is expected to go to the council in April.

Although the previous council, with its pro-development majority, initiated the study, the current, more-liberal council is not going to dismiss it out of hand. The pressure to change the Greenline is immense, and some of the liberal councilmembers have indicated they will keep an open mind.

When the Butte County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved the Greenline, 3-2, on July 21, 1982, it was the culmination of nearly 20 years of effort that had brought together an unlikely—and not repeated since—coalition of proponents: farmers, environmentalists and developers.

Chicoans today are aware that the issue of growth dominates local politics. That was true in 1982, too, only then the focus was on westside development. Protecting prime agricultural land was the central issue in local elections, particularly those for the county Board of Supervisors, under whose jurisdiction most ag land fell.

The pressure to develop to the west was immense. Orchard lands are flat and the soil is clean and easily drained, perfect for building, and Chico was growing fast.

But the soil is also inestimably rich, a deep loam deposited over millennia by the annual flooding of creeks and the Sacramento River. To many people, it seemed stupid and even vaguely sacrilegious to pave over such productive land, especially when Chico had plenty of open, low-yield grazing land on its east side.

In 1974, when a young former student body president at Chico State University, Jane Dolan, ran for the District 2 seat on the county Board of Supervisors, she made protection of westside farm land one of her highest priorities. Her opponent, liquor store owner and former high-school civics teacher Bernie Richter, also voiced support for saving ag land, but less passionately.

Richter narrowly won the hotly contested race. Once in office, however, he changed course, supporting a rezone of a large parcel along West Sacramento Avenue—what is now the subdivision called Big Chico Creek Estates. That, and his support of other proposed projects on westside ag land, led to a recall effort in 1976, but it failed.

Dolan ran again in 1978, and again saving ag land was her rallying cry. This time, much to Richter’s surprise, she won.

Once on the board, Dolan continued her effort to protect farm land. She posited the idea of creating a line that would permanently separate urban and agricultural areas on the west side. For the first two years of her tenure, however, she was a voice crying in the wilderness, losing most board votes 4-1.

Then, in 1980, Paradise voters elected Len Fulton, a writer and publisher, to the board. Fulton agreed with Dolan about saving farm land and supported her successful effort to have county staff and the Planning Commission study the issue.

Support for the “green line” increased. In 1981 liberals swept the City Council elections, and they supported it. Meanwhile, a coalition of farmers, environmentalists and developers began meeting to see if its members could agree on such a line.

Developers were coaxed into the process by the lure of relatively unfettered access to eastside land, which they were told they could have if the line were approved. The land was rocky and lava capped, but at least it was available, they thought.

The other Chico-area supervisor at the time, Hilda Wheeler, was caught in the middle. A staunch Republican, she had an ideological dislike of a “green line,” believing it would deprive some property owners of their right to do what they wanted with their land—even though, as Dolan often pointed out, zoning had long been a legitimate function of local government.

But Wheeler’s District 3 constituents supported the line, and proponents had mounted an effort to put the issue on the November 1982 ballot, when Wheeler was up for re-election. Politically, she was boxed in, and so she cast the deciding vote to approve what soon would be known simply as “the Greenline.”

It wasn’t long before developers began to realize that they’d bought a pig in a poke. All that eastside land that had looked so developable turned out to include hundreds of vernal pools, seasonal wetlands created when winter and spring rains formed pools of water over the impermeable lava cap that underlies the shallow soil.

In the many thousands of years since the lava cap was deposited, complex and unique ecosystems have developed in these pools. One resident is a tiny crustacean called the fairy shrimp that has the ability to dig into the mud, survive summer’s dryness and reproduce when the water returns. Because of development, only about 10 percent of these once-abundant wetlands remain in California.

It was also discovered that Butte County was home to a unique species of the meadowfoam plant, one that, if not protected, could become listed federally as endangered, and that it grew on those same eastside grazing lands.

Developing the east side became much more difficult. The same environmentalists who had offered up eastside land in return for the Greenline protecting westside ag land were up in arms again, now protecting vernal pools and Butte County meadowfoam. They were joined by such powerful agencies as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The years-long effort to find 40 or 50 developable acres for a new high school, which is still going on, is emblematic of the problem.

Efforts to develop higher up, in the foothills, also have met resistance, for several reasons. One is that the population of blue oaks is threatened; another is the desire to protect Chico’s “viewshed” and a principal area for groundwater replenishment. And extending services, sewers especially, to the foothills would be extremely expensive.

Environmentalists also opposed a huge project, Rancho Arroyo, which would have put more than 4,500 units on 750 acres off Wildwood Avenue, mostly because it was thought to be too big and too close to Upper Bidwell Park. When the City Council approved it, opponents mounted a referendum campaign, saying “No way, San Jose,” and in 1991 voters soundly rejected it.

A later proposal for the land, Bidwell Ranch, reduced the number of units to 1,500, dedicated 200 acres to the park and left two-thirds of the land in open space, but it too met resistance. The city ended up buying the land, and its ultimate use remains uncertain.

Development on the east side has continued, of course, but more slowly than hoped, at least by developers. The southeast Chico retail area has boomed, California Park has steadily expanded, some development has taken place along Bruce Road, and there has been substantial growth in the Foothill Park area north of East Avenue and east of Ceres.

It has not been well-coordinated growth. To this date, there is only one specific, or comprehensive, plan for an eastside area. It was done for Enloe Health System’s 240-acre parcel along Bruce Road. But Enloe subsequently decided not to move its hospital after all, so the plan is no longer appropriate.

Partly as a result of the constraints, the city has looked north, toward areas around the airport, for more developable land, with some success. But the airport, with its need for safe overflight space, has provided its own constraints.

The city has also looked south, toward land along Highway 99 near the Southgate industrial area and Butte Creek Estates, as well as Nance Canyon, a huge area south of the Skyway and east of the freeway.

But there is a widespread concern about developing along a north-south axis paralleling the freeway, and besides the city wants to avoid sprawl as much as possible. Its general plan, developed over two years in the early 1990s, calls for maintaining a compact urban core by fostering higher-density housing—an average of seven units per acre—and so-called “infill” development (building on vacant parcels within the existing urban area).

But infill development presents its own problems, as developers will tell you. Often neighbors are resistant, especially if the projects are of higher densities. They don’t welcome the increased traffic, the additional noise and, conceivably, a lowering of property values. And infill is usually more expensive than building on large, open spaces.

Developers also are resistant to building at high densities. People just don’t want to be so crowded together, they insist. They want to look out on back yards, not a fence six feet from the back door.

That’s a failure of imagination, critics say, accusing developers of just wanting to keep on doing things as they’ve always done them. Instead of designing houses that work on smaller lots or otherwise solving the density problem, they try to squeeze houses designed for large lots on small ones and then wonder why buyers aren’t interested.

In fact, there are many reasons why Chico, like all of California, suffers from a lack of housing. One is the state’s rapid growth, now about 600,000 people per year. Another is its tax structure, which since passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 has strictly limited property taxes, rendering growth unable to pay for the services it requires and local officials less enthusiastic about approving new subdivisions.

Still, the state is growing, and nowhere more so than the Central Valley, where housing costs are still lower than along the coast. The result is more sprawl and more air pollution, another reason why local authorities are carefully scrutinizing new development proposals.

And then there’s the desirability of Chico. Old-timers may lament the increased traffic and noise, the dirtier air and the influx of corporate businesses, but to someone accustomed to Los Angeles or the Bay Area, Chico seems positively pastoral, a sweet little college town where folks are friendly and the living is easy. It’s no wonder they want to move here.

Resistance to the Greenline has existed for as long as it has. Soon after it was created, in fact, Bill Cottingham, the owner of a large almond orchard along the Midway, sued to be moved to the urban side of the line, arguing that his trees suffered from oak root fungus and were no longer economically viable. The court upheld the zoning.

Many farmers have long complained about how the presence of houses next to their orchards makes their job harder. Farming is often dusty, noisy work, and it’s hard to apply fertilizers and pesticides without having them drift onto neighboring properties. Homeowners may like living next to orchards most of the time, but they hate it when farmers are working 30 feet away.

Despite that, the county Farm Bureau consistently has been one of the strongest backers of the Greenline. It’s a necessary evil, says Jeff Cripe, an almond farmer and former member of the bureau’s board of directors. As he once told this paper, “Ag is and always has been the key industry in Butte County. It’s the right thing that we should want to protect that from becoming history.”

In any reconfiguration of the Greenline, says Tom Hayes, a senior planner for the city of Chico who is working closely on the Greenline feasibility study, one of the foremost goals will to end up with natural boundaries between urban and ag uses—a waterway, for example. Farmers need about 150 feet of separation from houses to be able to work comfortably, he explains.

Scott Gruendl, whose election to the council in November gave it a liberal majority, echoes Hayes in calling for buffers between urban and ag. “If we’re going to tinker with the Greenline, we should go an extra step to make sure that what we end up with is a permanent line,” he says.

The three areas being studied for possible development are: Area 1, comprised of 541 acres north of Bell Road and between the Esplanade and Highway 32; Area 2, 171 acres comprised of two triangle-shaped sections of land in central-west Chico, the larger one off Dayton Road just south of town and the Union Pacific tracks, the smaller off Estes Road; and Area 3, 900 acres in two sections, one south of Hegan Lane and west of the Midway, the other bordering the Southgate industrial park east of the Midway.

Although the study is not finished, it’s clear in talking with Hayes that some areas are more feasible than others and all have shortcomings in addition to the most obvious one, which is that good farm land would be lost to development.

The land in Area 3, for example, offers no clear boundaries on its southern edge. “It’s probably the most sensitive area,” Hayes says, “because there’s no natural barrier between it and the Durham area.”

Of the two sections of Area 3, the land east of the Midway and bordering the Southgate industrial park is perhaps more feasible for development at this time. There are already quite a few houses in the area, and more are going in.

On the other hand, as Gruendl notes, extensive development in the area could necessitate building a new, multimillion-dollar freeway interchange at Southgate, something that nobody wants to pay for.

Area 2 would seem to be the most feasible of the three, if only because it’s so close to town and a sewer trunk line already runs down nearby Pomona Avenue. In addition, Dayton Road, the railroad tracks and existing development would offer clear-cut boundaries between it and ag land.

But it does have problems, Gruendl points out. For one thing, the 160-acre Diamond Match property sits right across the railroad tracks, smack-dab between it and a well-established neighborhood in south Chico. The owner of Diamond Match has given no indication of what he intends to do with the property, and any plan for the area will have to include it.

There are also transportation problems, not the least of them the presence of the tracks, which pose a safety issue, especially for fire trucks and ambulances trying to get to Enloe Medical Center. “Putting more urban [development] west of the railroad tracks when you don’t have an underpass is just insane,” Dolan says. There are no plans to build a multimillion-dollar underpass, either.

Traffic is also a problem in the area, as the battle last year over the nearby Otterson Drive extension and bridge showed. There is no overall circulation plan for the area, and how residents would get into and out of the Diamond Match and Estes Road areas is unclear. What is clear is that current South Chico residents don’t want their neighborhood streets to turn into thoroughfares serving new residents.

And, finally, the area is home to some politically seasoned activists who successfully fought some of the town’s most powerful and wealthiest interests when they defeated the Otterson project. Any proposal to develop in their neighborhood would likely be met with similar resistance.

That leaves Area 1, in northwest Chico. It too has both advantages and disadvantages. A major advantage is that Mud Creek on the north and Highway 32 on the west form excellent boundaries for a future Greenline. Twenty years from now, when developers might be tempted to push the line out farther, those boundaries will create an almost inviolable barrier.

Long-term plans call for Eaton Road to be extended to Highway 32, and development is already pushing that way. At its March 18 meeting, the City Council discussed creation of a plan for the so-called Northwest Chico Development Area, which extends from Hicks Lane on the east side of Highway 99 all the way to where it butts up to the Greenline west of The Esplanade. On the north it’s bounded by Sycamore and Mud creeks (see map).

A major subdivision, Brentwood, already has been approved for the area, and others are in the pipeline. City Planning Director Kim Seidler has recommended that, before more individual projects are approved, a comprehensive plan be prepared, one that would involve the public as well as developers. Developers want to come up with a plan of their own to save time.

An important aspect of any plan would have to include the design of the Eaton Road extension, Seidler explains. Originally, it was assumed the extension would pass mostly through ag land and that its primary purpose would be to funnel traffic quickly between Highways 32 and 99. So it was designated as a “limited access expressway,” which means speeds of at least 45mph and few connections.

If Area 1 is to be opened up for growth, however, the design of the road will need to change to create a gentler, more accessible street, Seidler explains. That’s a decision, he adds, that the council will need to make soon.

Area 1’s biggest disadvantage is that it is located immediately north of the Bell-Muir area, a semi-rural enclave of ranchettes and small, mostly abandoned orchards located north of East Avenue between Alamo and Highway 32 and extending north to Bell Road. Bell-Muir area is also outside the Greenline, even though it’s not viable for serious farming, and historically its residents have been opposed to annexing to the city.

Currently, it is zoned for one-acre-minimum parcels on septic tanks, and most of the 150 or so owners of such small parcels want it to stay that way. But, Gruendl says, that’s not necessarily the case with the owners of the larger, 10- and 15-acre parcels. They’re more interested in planning for urban-density development there.

But the area also has drainage problems, and in addition extensive growth would exacerbate the already severe traffic problems on East Avenue and Highway 32. “We’re just in a world of hurt there, and there’s no cheap fix,” Gruendl says.

He agrees that Area 1 stands out for its defensible boundaries and the possibility to do good planning there, but he doesn’t think it should be opened up until something is first done with the Bell-Muir area.

Seidler says the council has given his staff no directions regarding Bell-Muir, but he agrees with Gruendl that it won’t be able to ignore the area much longer, especially if it has an interest in developing Area 1. Bell-Muir has “a lot of vacant and underdeveloped land that, if planned sensitively, could be a huge resource,” Seidler says.

One of the givens of the feasibility study, Tom Hayes says, is that none of the agricultural areas under consideration for development will be converted to urban uses without first developing a specific plan and doing a full-scale environmental-impact report.

One of the advantages of opening up such large areas to development, Hayes explains, is that it allows for the kind of comprehensive planning that results in truly livable neighborhoods, with streets that flow together well and minimize traffic stress and areas set aside for schools, parks, open space and commercial centers.

A specific plan is a state-sanctioned legal document that seeks to have local-government planners, property owners, developers and the public work together to come up with the best plan possible. “We want to know exactly how [an area] is going to be developed before bringing it inside [the Greenline],” Hayes says.

The process is complex and time consuming. Sphere-of-influence and general-plan changes have to be made. Hearings must be held. Environmental-impact reports must be written. Annexation has to take place. For any of the areas under consideration, it will take five to 10 years minimum, Hayes says—and “with politics, longer.”

And then there’s Jane Dolan.

As a supervisor, Dolan’s ability to stop changes to the Greenline is limited because she’s in a semi-permanent minority. The three-member majority is almost certain to approve any effort to allow more development.

But, as was shown last year when she and husband Bob Mulholland mounted a blitzkrieg campaign to overturn Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi’s bizarre redistricting plan, she wields tremendous grassroots power.

So it’s a virtual certainty that the City Council won’t try to move the Greenline without Dolan’s approval. As Mayor Maureen Kirk puts it, “The politics are very touchy. … If [Dolan] doesn’t sign off [on any changes], it’s going to be difficult. I wouldn’t touch it without consulting with her.”

Or, as Gruendl puts it, “Nobody wants to get in a fight with Jane.”

In talking with Dolan, it’s clear that the only area that seems even remotely feasible to her is Area 1. “It deserves a look,” she says, “but [changing the Greenline] will be controversial. I’m reluctant to do it, extremely reluctant.”

Her biggest concern is that the plan for the area won’t be good enough. She cites the Brentwood subdivision, which the previous council approved despite intense criticism of its design from all quarters, including city staff, planning commissioners and the public.

She agrees with Hayes that there must be an area-wide plan, but she worries that some property owners won’t want to wait and the council will give in. “So far the council has caved,” she says. “I don’t know if this one will, but when the drumbeat’s out there …”

The Northwest Chico Development Area now before the council would seem to be a test case. With developers calling for the council to let them call the shots in order to speed up the process, will the council follow its planning director’s recommendation to involve the public in a lengthier process of developing a more comprehensive plan for the area? Or will it heed developers’ wishes in order to get a plan faster?

Developers and councilmembers alike might want to remember that Dolan’s support for future changes in the Greenline may be riding on the City Council’s choice.