Slow go

Stakeholders call for more time on countywide conservation plan

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau (shown at Gorrill Ranch in Durham), says the conservation plan would restrict 23,000 acres of ag-land to rice farming—as snake habitat.

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau (shown at Gorrill Ranch in Durham), says the conservation plan would restrict 23,000 acres of ag-land to rice farming—as snake habitat.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Beat the deadline:
Wednesday (June 8) ends the BRCP’s public comment period. Visit and click on “BRCP Documents” to read the draft; submit comments to Chris Devine at BCAG via email (, fax (879-2444) or hard copy (326 Huss Drive, Ste. 150, Chico CA 95928).

Colleen Cecil remembers when she first started learning about the Butte Regional Conservation Plan. Back in 2008, she wasn’t even Colleen Cecil; she was Colleen Aguiar—yet to be married, yet to be a mother (not once, but twice). She did have her current job, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, and it was in that capacity that she regularly attended meetings conducted by the Butte County Association of Governments.

BCAG, which comprises the county and its municipalities, decided to consolidate a number of planning and permitting processes. The Butte Regional Conservation Plan (BRCP) would serve both as a federal Habitat Conservation Plan (under the Endangered Species Act) and a state Natural Community Conservation Plan (under Fish and Game Code).

Thus, once approved by all agencies, not only would the plan enable BCAG members to offer a streamlined application for construction permits, it also would establish a countywide policy for preservation encompassing myriad varieties of wildlife. The plan would span 50 years.

Obviously, crafting such an expansive document is no small feat. BCAG held 47 meetings and three community workshops before releasing a draft for public comment last fall. Cecil was a mainstay; she even attended while on maternity leave, recalling fondly how former Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, chairing a meeting, held her newborn.

With all the opportunities for input, BCAG Planning Manager Chris Devine expected feedback during the comment period—which ends Wednesday (see info box)—as opposed to opposition.

He got both.

The Farm Bureau, representing growers and ranchers, raised significant issues with the plan. Preservation groups weighed in with species-specific concerns.

Even the Chico Chamber of Commerce got involved—first asking for an extension of the comment period (which BCAG granted), and now requesting a more inclusive draft that would add another year or two to the approval process.

“Slow the eight-year process down,” Cecil summarized, then laughed.

Cecil doesn’t object to deeper consideration: “I think it’s now people who haven’t been as involved up to this point realizing that this is a big deal, maybe we should slow it down and really understand it. That’s great; I’m all for that.

“Our challenge [as the Farm Bureau] from the beginning has been the size and scope of the project. It has always been marketed as this great tool to benefit development … However, mitigation for development is only one-third of the project; two-thirds of the entire document’s purpose is conservation for the sake of conservation.”

Conservation itself is not the problem, Cecil continued: “We all live here and enjoy the open space that we have … Farmers are the first environmentalists; we’re the stewards of the land and always have been.” The ag community takes umbrage at “a plan that’s written that has the potential to make agriculture second to conservation in a county where farming is what we do.”

As a prime example of precedence, Cecil cites easements for giant garter snakes. The BRCP calls for 23,000 acres of rice fields set aside as habitat. Farmers agreeing to this easement still would grow rice; however, the arrangement would bind the land in perpetuity.

“Look back 50 years ago: What did agriculture look like, versus what it looks like today?” Cecil posed. “To think that in 50 years it is going to look exactly the same is naive and unfortunate.”

Devine said BRCP authors already have incorporated the rice-easement concern, reducing the initial target of 50,000 acres, and will consider all such feedback when making revisions.

“At the same time,” he added, “we’ve got these state and federal agencies we’re trying to address under the plan.” Development will be regulated “whether the plan’s in place or not.”

Devine anticipates at least six months before BCAG’s board—the five county supervisors plus one council representative per city/town—could vote on the plan. Extensive revisions will take months and also trigger a new 90-day period for public comment.

The Chico Chamber wants even more time. Chamber President Katie Simmons submitted a letter April 27, following study trips to Bay Area locales with habitat conservation plans, that calls for renewed discussion among interested parties orchestrated by an independent facilitator.

The business group has not taken a position on the BRCP’s content itself, Simmons says; rather, “this is just the chamber stepping way back, almost looking at this from the 30,000-foot level, and saying we see a lot of unrest, we see a lot of concern, we’re hearing from some of our members that there are some flaws in the plan—some of them are hiring third parties or attorneys to work through some of those technical issues—and if this passes now, it could potentially fragment stakeholders who are going to need to work together to make this plan successful.”

Natalie Carter, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, also sees benefit from deliberation. Noting that the BRCP’s 50-year term exceeds the general plans of both Butte County and Chico, she says, “it’s smart to be cautious about these kinds of things—thoughtful and evaluative.”

On the BRCP overall, Carter said, “the concept and the core of it is a really strong thing, and wonderful. It’s a remarkable effort that should be appreciated by our community.”