Seldom an encouraging word

On a Chico City Council agenda packed with potentially juicy issues—from plans to ward off terrorists, to the Chico State University efforts to oust a hotdog vendor from campus, to a controversial tree-protection ordinance—the item that got the most attention—and drew the most blood—was how to define the word “encourage.”

Maybe it was the April 1 date of the meeting.

The item, brought before council at the request of Councilmember Coleen Jarvis, opened old wounds between liberal and conservative councilmembers because it dealt with development. More specifically, it looked at how the city staff is to interpret the word “encourage” as used in the city’s General Plan.

The liberals were hoping to provide city staff some leverage in implementing the plan by giving the word “encourage” a bit more bite, putting the burden on developers to prove why they should be allowed to deviate from the plan when conditions warranted.

In the end, Mayor Maureen Kirk sided with the conservatives to maintain the status quo, which means city staff is still responsible for proving why the developers’ plans don’t fit the spirit of the General Plan.

Recent developments, particularly the recently approved Brentwood Estates in north Chico, have been criticized as the type of growth the General Plan was designed to eliminate, subdivisions whose models did not take into account how they fit into the region and affected such things as traffic flow.

More than 60 policies of the General Plan, which is a guide for developers and the subdivision plans they bring to the city for approval, begin with the word “encourage” or “discourage.” City staff uses the policies to set guidelines for how the city should develop.

Jarvis said she wanted to undo the damage that former Mayor Rick Keene had inflicted on the plan six years ago when he led a series of meetings to amend or alter parts of the plan local developers found objectionable.

The meetings were supposed to implement the plan, adopted in 1994, but instead rearranged and redefined parts of the plan and in the end removed, in the words of one former councilmember, “the plan’s teeth.”

Councilmember Dan Herbert warned that the Jarvis’ real intentions were to give city staff power to mandate to developers how their projects should be built and flies in the face of free enterprise.

“Does this mean the end of cul-de-sacs in Chico?” he asked.

The conservatives think the market—what people are willing to buy—should dictate how subdivisions are constructed.

“It seems to me like Chico still enjoys cul-de-sacs,” Herbert said.

The words in question were added during the political battle to adopt the plan, making it more flexible.

The example used in the staff report quoted a guiding policy on traffic circulation that said the plan would “Encourage a fine-grained and integrated pattern of streets that provides continuity, focus, diversity, and a human scale.”

Senior Planner Tom Hayes explained the General Plan’s goal is to build “neighborhoods, not just subdivisions—to take in the bigger picture.”

Kim Seidler, the city’s planning director, told the council that, as currently interpreted, the word encourage “does not achieve the kind of balance we want.”

Councilmember Larry Wahl questioned the motive behind the agendized item and called it a “political twist.”

“Why not just use the word ‘mandate'?” he suggested.

Seidler answered, “We have a General Plan primarily because of political compromise.”

He said his hope was to show the council “where staff is coming from” when it comes to implementing the General Plan and negotiating with developers: “Our primary desire is to translate your desire to those developers.”

Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan held that this was not a case of “either/or” but rather of reinforcing the idea that developers must document why, in some cases, they should not have to follow the General Plan.

Herbert shot back, “Reinforcing the General Plan? How do you reinforce something that is general?”

Wahl, playing the devil’s advocate, suggested revisiting the plan and inserting words like “mandate and dictate.”

Councilmember Scott Gruendl, the only member of the council who sat on the task force that developed the General Plan, warned that doing so would “open up a long process.”

In the end the council voted 4-3 to maintain the current interpretation of the word “encourage,” which in essence means city staff will still be responsible for proving why developers’ plans run against the grain of the General Plan, rather than the developers having to explain why they should be allowed to bypass certain parts of the plan.

Judging by the faces of staff at the end of the meeting, their jobs have not gotten any easier.