Supervisors tentatively rezone much of Butte County

They approve general-plan changes that will eliminate current ag zones

There was talk of “takings” and “downzoning” and a veiled threat of legal action at the Tuesday (April 14) meeting of the Butte County Board of Supervisors. That was no surprise, given that the supervisors were considering whether to change the zoning and minimum lot sizes of much of the county.

It was a special meeting to consider draft No. 2 of the new general plan’s land-use map, this time focusing on all areas of the county except the 31 future-growth areas, already approved.

The plan’s policies call for protecting agricultural land and focusing development in and around existing urban areas. In the existing general plan, which dates to 1979, there are two main categories of ag land: orchard and field crops (OFC) and grazing and open land (GOL), which together comprise nearly 400,000 acres. There are also 15,699 parcels comprising nearly 120,000 acres with the designation agricultural-residential (AR). With the exception of the timber lands in the eastern part and the urban areas, that’s pretty much the entire county.

Historically, Development Services Director Tim Snellings explained, OFC applied to farming done in the valley, while GOL was applied to the foothills. Lately, though, more and more foothills residents are planting such crops as olives and vineyards, and the GOL designation is inappropriate for them.

The AR category is inherently “conflicted,” he told the supervisors, and the goal is to eliminate it altogether. In addition, he recommended that the OFC and GOL categories be merged into a single Agriculture designation and that uniform minimum lot sizes be established.

Some land currently zoned for agriculture that’s surrounded by AR-5 parcels might be appropriate for Rural-Residential zoning, which allows such small parcels, he said. Land designated for agriculture should have higher minimum lot sizes, however.

Several property owners who apparently had plans to develop their land were concerned that they would no longer be able to do so. And some said they used their current low minimum sizes as collateral in leveraging loans for their farming operations.

Scott Perkins, a property owner and developer who said he was also representing the Palermo Community Association, said the group was concerned about a possible 160-acre-minimum overlay on GOL-zoned properties and an 80-acre minimum on OFC lands.

Personally, he said, he thought downzoning property was in reality a “taking of rights.” People invest in land based on many factors, including its zoning, and when it’s downzoned, it loses value. “To downzone a piece of property, in my mind, is a crime,” he said.

It’s also self-defeating for the county because it lowers property taxes: “If my land is downzoned, the first thing I’m going to do is knock on the door of the assessor for a reassessment.” His other recourse, he suggested, was in the courts.

In the end, the supervisors voted to merge the GOL and OFC designations into a single Agriculture zone. The two Chico-area supervisors, Jane Dolan and Maureen Kirk, wanted to set relatively high minimum lot sizes—Kirk said she preferred 40 acres—but were outvoted by Kim Yamaguchi, Bill Connelly and Steve Lambert, who supported a motion by Lambert to establish a minimum-lot-size range from 20 to 160 acres.

Although the board effectively did away with AR-5 and AR-10 zoning, there are still a lot of small undeveloped lots in rural areas of the county—around 3,600 of five acres or less and nearly 4,000 of five to 20 acres—that will be grandfathered into the new designations.

The general-plan update is still in draft form. It has a year to go—and numerous public hearings—before being finalized. In a phone interview Wednesday, Connelly pointed out that staff will analyze what minimum lot sizes are appropriate for what areas, and the supervisors later will establish sizes that fit the circumstances. Property owners will have an opportunity to advocate for their interests at that time.