State of the ranch

Environmental groups want to see Bidwell Ranch become part of Bidwell Park

Bidwell Ranch, one of the city’s most controversial pieces of property, is on the radar again, as staff prepares a report on the reserve.

Bidwell Ranch, one of the city’s most controversial pieces of property, is on the radar again, as staff prepares a report on the reserve.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Seasonal cattle-grazing makes up the bulk of the activity at Bidwell Ranch, an expansive reserve downslope of Upper Bidwell Park. But that could change if the Chico City Council gets behind the request of a coalition of heavy-hitting local environmental groups.

As John Merz put it in a recent city meeting, the request is straightforward: that “Bidwell Ranch become a formal part of Bidwell Park.”

Merz announced that surprising turn of events during a gathering last week of the city’s Natural Resources Committee, whose members, along with the general public, gave feedback to a city staffer who is preparing a report on Bidwell Ranch for an upcoming council meeting. The city purchased the property 18 years ago, and the site has remained fenced off ever since, open to the public only during docent-led tours that haven’t taken place regularly in years. Currently, ranchers lease a portion of the property for grazing.

City officials have long intended to turn the site, which is zoned as open space and home to vernal pools and other environmentally sensitive habitat, into a mitigation and/or conservation bank. But that plan has hit snags over the past decade, and Merz says local environmental groups—Friends of Bidwell Park, Butte Environmental Council, Altacal Audubon Society, the Sierra Club Yahi Group, the California Native Plant Society’s Mount Lassen chapter and the Bidwell Ranch Committee—have come to the conclusion that the best option for the 750-acre property is adding it to the city’s largest park.

In a brief phone interview days later, Merz, president of the Friends of Bidwell Park group, said the consensus was reached within the last month. That agreement comes as the city inventories the properties it owns, and when Bidwell Ranch appears to be of particular interest to at least one member of the council.

At the March 17 City Council meeting, during discussion about evaluating the city’s 289 parcels, freshman Councilman Andrew Coolidge asked City Manager Mark Orme for more information on Bidwell Ranch, along with a few other parcels, all open space. At the same meeting, Loretta Torres, a conservative who regularly attends the meetings, outright suggested the city sell the reserve.

“When the inventory talk came up, that did cause some concern,” Merz acknowledged.

Both mitigation and conservation banks are designed to allow developers to buy credits that let them build on other lands where there are unavoidable impacts to the environment. Conservation banks protect threatened habitats, while mitigation relates to the protection, restoration and creation of wetlands. Both types of banks are an instrument used to protect environmentally sensitive sites in perpetuity.

“[Bidwell Ranch] does have potential for both,” noted Dan Efseaff, the city of Chico’s park and natural resources manager.

Efforts to turn the property into a viable conservation and/or mitigation bank stalled several years ago, Efseaff acknowledged. He said the process, which involves such regulatory agencies as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was derailed back in 2008 due to a number of circumstances.

The Chico Planning Department, which had taken the lead on the effort, had its hands full with the years-long general plan update, he said. Then the Great Recession hit, decimating the local housing market, including new construction, meaning there was little urgency on the matter. Moreover, the economic conditions shuttered the state Fish and Wildlife’s mitigation banking program. That agency revived the program last year, and Efseaff says conversations with the city have resumed.

Bidwell Ranch wasn’t always pegged for such purposes and has a controversial background going back 30-odd years, according to an archive of CN&R stories.

In the early 1980s, developers brought forth a plan for a massive subdivision of 4,400 housing units called Rancho Arroyo. It was met with vigorous community opposition and never got off the ground. Years later, however, after the property changed hands, the City Council approved a scaled-back version of about 3,000 units. That plan was overturned in 1988 during a citywide citizen-led referendum.

But that wasn’t the end of ambitions to develop the site.

In the mid-’90s, yet another plan moved forward. It included about half as many housing units and would have dedicated more than half the acreage to open space. But again, the public pushed back, and in 1997, largely to avoid lawsuits by either side of the debate, the city spent $4 million to buy the property, plus it took on $2.5 million in developer-owed sewer fees.

“It [took] a very controversial, contentious piece … off the table,” Efseaff said of the purchase.

Fast forward to last week’s Natural Resources Committee meeting. The purpose of the gathering was for Efseaff to give an overview of the conservation and mitigation bank options and to get input from the committee members “for effective means to present it to [the] council and to identify other questions or issues that staff should address in the council report,” as a staff report outlined.

Efseaff went over some of the goals the City Council established for the property back in 2006, when the panel agreed to fund efforts exploring the feasibility of a mitigation bank. Among them are providing permanent protection for the site’s highly sensitive areas and opening appropriate areas to public access. He also noted that in 2012 the council directed city staff to consider four options for the property, three of which involved some incarnation of a mitigation bank, and the other calling for the continuation of current management.

Deep into the Natural Resources Committee meeting, someone addressed the elephant in the room, asking Efseaff whether the current City Council could consider selling the property. He said that, yes, theoretically that could happen. By the end of the meeting, the committee asked that Efseaff also bring forth the option of adding Bidwell Ranch to Bidwell Park. That will happen during the City Council’s June 16 meeting.

The next step, Efseaff later said, is to seek direction from the council.

According to City Manager Orme, the impetus for the city inventory was seeing some dilapidated holdings on 11th Street and learning that the city owned more parcels than he was aware of. Thus, he figured the council might not know about them, either. He said no requests to purchase Bidwell Ranch have come forward. Should there be interest, that would play out before the policy makers at the dais, he noted.

“I think that the approach I took is to ensure that the City Council knew the property holds the city currently has,” Orme said. “Whether that brings about speculative thought, that’s out of my control.”