Solar project blacked out indefinitely

Butte College has found itself between a Rock and a hard place.

In what will surely be an ongoing issue, work on a Butte College solar-panel project has been suspended while a challenge to the college’s negative declaration plays out in court.

The case was filed on Nov. 2 by the Butte Valley Preservation Society in an effort to challenge the college’s adoption of a negative declaration of environmental impact through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The case is scheduled to begin in mid-December.

Maria Rock, whose property lies adjacent to the site on the northwest side, formed Butte Valley Preservation Society, the plaintiff in the case.

Rock said the school ignored important environmental impacts, including the diversion of an intermittent stream.

“I don’t have anything against the solar project except for the location and the manner in which it was done,” Rock said.

The $7.4 million project, which was scheduled for completion in May 2005, has been postponed indefinitely, said Les Jauron, director of facilities planning and management at Butte: “We’re in a legal lull right now.”

If the project is stopped, he said the school could lose the $3.7 million California Public Utilities Commission rebate as well as another $4 million in lease revenue bonds, whereby the school would pay its half of the project cost with energy savings.

He said on top of that delay costs averaging about $1,000 per day will also have to be paid. Jauron said all of these costs will add up to about $7.5 million out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

“It’s a heck of a shame, from the public’s perspective,” Jauron said. “We did all the right things as far as choosing the site.”

But there are others who believe the school could have avoided legal entanglement if it had prepared a mitigated negative declaration, in which it would have proposed mitigation measures for any negative environmental impact found on the site.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said a negative declaration is the simplest form of review, but that it can ultimately leave the developer open to litigation.

Vlamis said the college failed not only to look at issues of water diversion, but also at the possible effects on local wildlife, including burrowing owls and Swainson’s hawks.

“The disregard for CEQA is so obvious,” Vlamis said. “I don’t see how the court can’t decide with the plaintiffs.”

She said the court process will not stop the solar panels from being installed, but that it will force the college to reassess the location, the design and the extent of the project. She also said the environment can be restored if, in fact, damage has been done.

Vlamis said seeking out more input from neighbors and establishing mitigation measures early on could have made the development process much easier for the college: “Butte College needs to re-evaluate how it conducts environmental review."Joe Person is a reasonable man. An African-American born and raised in Alabama, Person in 1964 brought his young family to Chico, where he says he almost immediately felt the pangs of West Coast prejudice when he took his young sons in for a haircut at barbershop on Third Street.

The barber, he said, purposely gave one of his sons a bad haircut and then charged more than his normal rate.

“I was in tears almost,” Person recalled. “He didn’t say, ‘I didn’t want to cut his hair,’ he just messed his hair up.'”

Person said that was simply one example of the type of behavior he and his family were exposed to early on here.

Things in Chico have changed in the four decades since, he said. In that time he built a successful restaurant, and one of his sons is now on the Chico Police Department.

Person can’t help but believe, he said, that the racial atmosphere in towns like Chico improved in no small part due to the efforts and ultimate sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil-rights activist who was assassinated four years after Person moved here. It matters not, he said, that King himself never visited Chico; his vision of racial harmony did.

Now Person is working to expand the name of the Community Park on 20th Street to the Martin Luther King Community Park. Person and a number of other community members took up the cause earlier this year after a majority of the City Council refused to rename Ivy Street in honor of King.

At the time Person said the effort to rename Ivy, which was being pushed by activist Willie Hyman, was too divisive—the councilmembers against the idea said making the businesses along Ivy change addresses on their business cards and letterheads was too expensive.

A woman named Jackie Leser then suggested the Community Park option, but Hyman complained to this paper that a white person should not be dictating how best to honor King. That’s when Person stepped in to support Leser’s suggestion.

But, on Oct. 21, the directors of the Chico Area Recreation District voted 3-2 not to change the name, saying it would violate a policy that calls for local parks to be named after local people.

Person presented the CARD board with petition of 700 signatures showing support for the name change.

“I gathered those at the park,” he said, “and eight out of every 10 people I approached were positive.”

In a letter Person wrote and paid to have published in the Enterprise-Record, he accuses the CARD board of racism.

“I know racism when it shows its dirty face,” he wrote. “One member on the board told the people and board members that there were a lot of people involved in building Community Park, and if we wanted a park for Dr. King we should build it.”

Person said that board member kept referring to “you people.” He would not name the member, but according to the CARD board minutes from that meeting, CARD Vice-Chairwoman Jan Sneed said another park should be built and named after King. Sneed also said, according to the minutes of that meeting, that she did not appreciate being called racist and that her goal as a board member was to provide after-school programs for latchkey kids and that she had done a good job.

“Member Sneed went on to say that there were numerous people that built Community Park, and she named some of the people and organizations that contributed,” the minutes read. “She concluded that asking them [the board] to rename the park on the backs of those that built the park was wrong.”

The board voted 3-2 not to rename the park, with Sneed, Jeff Smith and Ed Seagle voting in the majority and Andy Holcombe and Mark Sweeney in the minority. In the meantime, letters to the editor of the E-R and calls to its infamous Tell it to the ER have included sharp criticism of both those supporting the name change and even King himself.

Person also objected to this paper’s Nov. 18 editorial supporting the suggestion of Chico Unified School Board Trustee and local weatherman Anthony Watts to rename the plaza outside the City Municipal Building near the controversial “Hands” sculpture after King.

“My feelings have been hurt,” Person said. “Martin Luther King supported everybody—minorities and others. I’ve heard ‘We Shall Overcome’ sung in different languages around the world. It doesn’t matter if he never visited Chico.”

Person said he and a coalition of about a dozen others vow to continue the effort to rename the park.