Start making sense

Property owner’s representative says CUSD made an offer; district denies it

HIGH PRICE TAG Chico Unified School District officials are frustrated in the delay in finding a site for Canyon View High School.

HIGH PRICE TAG Chico Unified School District officials are frustrated in the delay in finding a site for Canyon View High School.

photo by Tom Angel

Switching sites: In considering several possible pieces of property for the new high school in 1998, the CUSD’s Site Selection Committee first tabbed land owned by the Schmidbauer family on the west side of Bruce Road. The owner didn’t want to sell that, so the east side became the top choice. Now, with federal agencies saying that property is the most environmentally constrained, sights are again shifting west.

Certified letters. Accusations. Unsigned, “secret” documents. Behind-the-scenes promises.

It would be a wild, Scooby Doo-style mystery to unravel if there weren’t so much at stake: the future of a new high school planned for southeast Chico.

Jim Mann, who represents the owners of the first-choice site for the school, a parcel located just east of Bruce Road, believes the Chico Unified School District has offered to pay $6 million for land on the west side of the road owned by the same clients. The district says it never did any such thing.

Both sides are stewing, and the school that has been bogged down in environmental constraints since a bond was approved to build it in 1998 is again the subject of controversy. The school district has long been interested in the more easterly plot, but the presence of endangered Butte County meadowfoam and wetlands there has stalled state and federal approval.

Mann, the only source quoted in a Dec. 10 article in Chico’s daily newspaper, announced that he held in his hand an offer from the CUSD to pay $120,000 an acre for the westerly land, twice the owner-stated price tag for the land on the east side.

“That’s not true,” stated Trustee Scott Schofield flatly.

Contacted by the News & Review, Mann countered: “That’s funny. I’ve got an option right here that says it. I’ve got something that says just the opposite of that.”

Here’s what the district says happened:

On Nov. 16, the CUSD sent out certified letters to Mann, who represents Bruce Road Associates (the Schmidbauer family of Eureka, owners of the two parcels) and Phil Wolfe, the head of Enloe Medical Center. (The latter owns land in the vicinity but has said it has no interest in selling the parcel the CUSD wants for anything near what the district can afford.)

Jim Mann who represents landowners the Schmidbauer family, says the district made an offer on this piece of land on the west side of Bruce Road.

photo by Tom Angel

The letters tell the parties the CUSD is interested in their properties and asks them to talk about putting together an “options contract” to perhaps acquire a site. No dollar amounts are mentioned. The letters, said Superintendent Scott Brown, “were designed to determine whether we have willing sellers,” which he now feels is not the case for the west side. (If all else fails, the district could pursue the politically unpopular process of eminent domain.)

After getting his copy, Brown said, Mann called Mike Weissenborn, the facilities planner for the CUSD, and asked for a copy of a draft option agreement that was passed around almost a year ago. It’s titled “Purchase and Sale Agreement and Joint Escrow Instructions” but is full of fill-in-the-blank lines and isn’t signed.

“We had an early discussion of a format of an option,” Weissenborn said. “The district has never offered any price on any of thsee parcels out there. … It’s the same document that we were talking about before. It’s not any thing new.”

Mann says Weissenborn characterized the document as an offer to buy. “It was brought to me for me to review it and get back to them,” Mann said, holding it aloft and pointing out the title but not providing a copy. “It was represented to me as being new information, a new option to review.”

Does he think the CUSD is sneaking around behind the scenes? “I don’t know why they’re doing it the way they’re doing it.”

Brown gave the News & Review a copy of two documents, which refer to a potential agreement with Bruce Road Associates and suggest a $3 million cap but also mention a $120,000-per-acre “purchase price” for the site on the west side.

Brown says that’s just acknowledging the owner’s asking price; Mann sees it as the CUSD being willing to pay it. “[It says,] ‘The purchase price shall be the sum of $120,000 …,” Mann said. Did Mann hear “west” and assume the CUSD was now willing to pay the asking price? No, he said. “I don’t misunderstand numbers, especially when I read them.”

The idea that the CUSD would even consider paying $120,000 an acre is ludicrous, said Trustee Scott Schofield, who called the figure “wishful thinking” on the part of the property owner or his representative. The district knew that’s what the Schmidbauers wanted for land on the west side, but the CUSD never believed it was worth that.

“They can want as much as they want, and we can only pay the appraised value. That’s in the Ed[ucation] Code,” Schofield said. “Not only can we not afford that, but the appraisals don’t support that.

“We’re not going to buy anything that doesn’t leave us enough money to build classrooms,” he said.

Superintendent Scott Brown says it never happened.

photo by Tom Angel

Randy Meeker, the CUSD’s business manager, agreed: The bond left between $3 million and $3.4 million to buy land for Canyon View High School, and paying twice that would break the budget.

Furthermore, pointed out a CUSD press release that came on the heels of the daily paper’s report, there’s no way the district could legally be close to buying any property. Not only does the land still have to go through the environmental-impact-report process and other government clearances, but also the state would never let a public agency pay an amount not supported by the appraisal process.

The Board of Trustees would have to approve any purchase offer.

“If a business deal is going to be made, it’s not going to be made in the newspaper,” Brown said.

Brown said that while Bruce Road Associates hasn’t responded yet, he got a letter dated Dec. 10 from Enloe that “restates their disinterest” in selling the property the CUSD needs but offering another environmentally constrained parcel. (Enloe Chief Executive Officer Phil Wolfe, in a brief statement to the News & Review, referred to the property as an “investment” Enloe Health System must preserve for the future, and wished the CUSD success in “obtaining a new preferred site, west of Bruce Road and north of Raley Boulevard.")

Mann said the only reason the Schmidbauers ever discussed selling land on the east side for $60,000 an acre is “for the good of the community.”

He says the Schmidbauers would consider selling only if Bruce Road Associates could get the rest of its land cleared for residential development, or if the feds or district would buy it outright. “We’re not going to sell 50 acres to the school and let the rest of the 350 acres [go undeveloped].”

Weissenborn said those conditions address things that the CUSD has no control over. “This is absolutely off the wall to me,” he said. “I think it’s his wish list.”

Weissenborn and Brown stopped short of saying the he-said, she-said debate will irreparably mar the relationship between the district and the property owner. “It doesn’t contribute to clean communication about the property,” Brown said. “Any offer will be so highly structured that it will be unmistakable.”

So what does Mann think now?

“They’re playing government with me," said Mann, who says he hasn’t heard anything from the district in days. "I hope they go over to Enloe."