Taking measure of Measure A

What the average voter should know about Otterson Drive bridge and extension

Members of Neighbors for Environmental and Fiscal Responsibility, hold a protest in the Hegan Lane Industrial Park. The group gathered enough signatures last August to put the proposed Otterson Drive extension and bridge project up for special election June 5.

Members of Neighbors for Environmental and Fiscal Responsibility, hold a protest in the Hegan Lane Industrial Park. The group gathered enough signatures last August to put the proposed Otterson Drive extension and bridge project up for special election June 5.

Photo by Tom Angel

On Tuesday, June 5, Chico voters will be asked to decide the fate of a proposed $2.9 million road project in southwest Chico.

About a year ago, the issue began gaining momentum as the City Council’s new conservative majority flexed its muscle, elevating what had been a dormant capital-improvement project set for some unspecified future date above other projects and, in doing so, sparking a political debate the likes of which this town has not seen in more than a decade.When the council voted last summer 4­3 to go ahead with the project, opponents scrambled to gather enough signatures—2,500 in four weeks—to force a referendum and place the matter before voters.

Passage of Measure A would extend a street out of the Hegan Land Industrial Park, plowing through a riparian habitat that is treasured by local environmentalists, bridging a waterway that is both a natural drainage channel and an irrigation conduit before connecting to the intersection that joins South Park Avenue, the Midway and East Park Avenue. The goal is both to relieve anticipated traffic snarls in the area as it builds out and give the industrial park a third entrance, which the park owner says will go a long way in bringing new businesses and jobs to Chico.

Bill Brouhard, business partner with park owner Doug Guillon, argues that the economic development sure to follow the installation of the bridge will benefit all of Chico with increased employment and elevated payrolls that come with manufacturing jobs. Without the bridge, the park will develop, he concedes, but rather than light industry and its associated employment, the park will become home to warehouses, and a golden opportunity will be missed.

Critics include both environmentalists who argue the project will ruin the riparian habitat of one of the last natural spots in Chico, and fiscal conservatives who hold that the $2.9 million project is a giveaway of public money to a private interest.

The arguments pro and con have been made in stories and on the letters page in both this paper and the daily Enterprise-Record. What follows in this special report is a set of questions and answers on the core matters that make up the Otterson Drive project; a first-person venture into the riparian habitat of Comanche Creek; and a conversation with the city’s point man for the project.

We hope this helps your decision on Tuesday. More than that, we hope you vote.

Jim Goodwin, CEO for the Chamber of Commerce and one of the leaders of the Coalition for Parks and Jobs, explains the benefits of Measure A during the recent “Tour for the Truth” barbeque.

Photo by Tom Angel

What is Measure A?
Measure A asks: “Shall the General Plan of the City of Chico be amended to allow construction of Otterson Drive improvements extending to the intersection of Park Avenue and East Park Avenue, which include the purchase and preservation for public use of creekside greenway adjacent to the proposed bridge and road extension as set forth in the City Council Resolution No. 42 00-01?”

What this means is that the city’s General Plan, which serves as its blueprint for growth, does not currently specify that a “collector street"—one that links local streets with larger capacity “arterial” streets—be built at that site. Approving the measure paves the way, so to speak, for the construction of approximately one-half mile of a 44-foot-wide roadway and bridge over what is called both Comanche Creek and Edgar Slough. The bridge would sit about one-eighth mile west of the Midway.

How would the project be financed?
Funding for the $2.9 million project would come from three sources: $1,435,000 in redevelopment funds culled from the Chico Merged Redevelopment Area; $1,020,000 from street facility funds that come from both commercial and residential development impact fees; and $300,000 plucked from the community park fund, which is pooled strictly from residential impact fees. Redevelopment funds operate on a debt basis. A local agency such as the City Council declares an area “blighted” (undeveloped) and then commissions construction of a project or projects that will increase the property value. The increased tax revenues then realized, instead of going to the state, stay with the local agency, which can use the money to finance public infrastructure improvements.Chico got into the redevelopment agency game in 1980 in response to 1978’s Prop. 13, which capped the property taxes cities then relied upon as a major funding source. The Otterson project is actually in the Greater Chico Urban Area RDA, but because that RDA, according to one inside source, is over-budgeted by $4 million, the merged RDA is being used because it is only $780,000 in debt. The Merged RDA financed the East 20th Street freeway exchange over Highway 99 back in the 1980s.

For the 2000-01 budget, City Manager Tom Lando recommended $4.8 million in capital-improvement projects funded from the Merged RDA. Those include the Otterson extension, remodeling the old Municipal Building, expanding the Police Department facility and creating a management plan for the Teichert Ponds. Lando said it is not unusual for the council to fund projects outside an RDA’s defined region as long as council makes the determination that the RDA will benefit in some way. According to our source, the evaluation process to recommend using the RDA funds for Otterson did not include the city’s Redevelopment Committee.

What is the difference between Comanche Creek and Edgar Slough?
Nothing but the name. The 12-mile-long slough was promoted to a creek status in the 1950s by a group of real estate developers who figured houses in the newly built neighborhood called Paseo Compañeros would be an easier sell if they sat along Comanche Creek rather than something called Edgar Slough. Whatever its designation, the waterway is a natural drainage channel that branches off Butte Creek and, thanks to a century-old diversion dam, also serves as an irrigation channel to ag lands west of Chico, including the 8,300-acre M&T Ranch.

In 1996 Butte Creek flooded during a series of heavy winter rainstorms, and when the water receded the creek had changed its course, leaving the diversion dam—as well as a brand-new $500,000 fish ladder—high and dry. As summer approached, Comanche Creek began to dry up, leaving the ag lands short one source of water. When the state stepped in to push the creek back into its old course, at a cost of $750,000, some environmentalists and fishing advocates protested. The project went forward, anyway, replenishing the year-round flow in Comanche Creek/Edgar Slough.

What is the Hegan Lane Industrial Park?
The 80-acre park, started in the late 1980s, is still in the process of build-out and currently consists of 10 buildings ranging in size from 18,000 square feet to 90,000 square feet, occupying 47.52 acres and housing a total of 27 businesses, as well as offices for the California Department of Fish & Game, the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Private Industry Council. The park’s businesses employ some 1,273 people. The largest employer is the National Heritage Insurance Company, which employs some 439 people. NHIC is a call center for folks with Medicare and health-insurance-related questions. The most recent addition is Fafco, which moved its solar-heating products for swimming pools operation here from Redwood City last November. It employs an estimated 70 people.

The park’s first business was Duckback Products, Inc. In the early ‘90s, United Parcel Service moved in from the North Esplanade. The park was founded and is currently owned by Doug Guillon, who also builds the “tilt-up” concrete buildings that mark the park. Guillon owns about half the lots on the property.

Measure A would allow construction of the roadway (in solid black) connecting East Park Avenue to Otterson Drive. If the road eventually is extended westward, along the abandoned railroad right-of-way, to connect with the Diamond Match property, as some are urging, it would require another bridge across Comanche Creek.

Who owns the property where the project would sit?
Richard and Darlene Thomasson inherited the property from Richard’s father Harold, who died about 10 years ago. He had inherited the land from his father and uncles, who were contemporaries of Chico founder John Bidwell. According to Eric Behring, the Thomassons’ son-in-law, the property—between 14 and 15 acres—was once part of a large hog farm that included what is now the PG&E substation, the Kinder-Morgan tank farm on Hegan Lane and the railroad right of way that runs through there.

Remnants of farm buildings are still present, including an old grain silo that the family said “collapsed a few years ago because it was being used as a shelter,” Behring said. He also recalled that a few years ago the body of a carnival worker from the Silver Dollar Fair was found back along the creek. About 10 years ago, soon after Harold Thomasson died, Behring said, the city approached the Thomassons and offered to purchase the property. “Ten years is long enough time to wait,” he said. “Now it’s time to see if the city is going to step up or not.”

He said homeless people have been squatting on the property for a few years now.

“You know, I’m not against the homeless, but we end up with their refuse and trash. If we build something, they will go away. If we sell to someone else, then it’s someone else’s problem.”

The Thomassons have told the Chico City Council that if Measure A fails, they will build something on the property such a mini-storage facility. Since the property is in the county, the city will have no say over the conditions upon which that structure will be built.

Ironically, the Thomassons live north of Chico in the county and are therefore ineligible to vote on Measure A.

Who is for Measure A?
Measure A supporters include Councilmembers Steve Bertagna, Dan Herbert, Rick Keene and Larry Wahl. The Chico Chamber of Commerce is a strong supporter and also makes up, for the most part, the political committee called “The Coalition for Parks and Jobs.” The Chico Economic Planning Corporation, the Chico Association of Realtors and the Butte County Farm Bureau political action committee are also pushing the project. Other notable supporters include former Chico City Manager Fred Davis, developer Dan Drake, Realtor Fran Shelton, M&T Ranch manager Les Heringer Jr. and Planning Commissioner Jolene Francis.

Who is against Measure A?
A group that dubbed itself Neighbors for Environmental and Fiscal Responsibility (NEFR) and is made up of many who live in the south Chico neighborhoods near the proposed project has formed a fund-raising committee to counter the efforts of the pro-A coalition. Its leaders are Michael Pike, Michael Smith, Chris Nelson and Emily Alma. Joining these more environmentally minded folk are fiscal conservatives like retired Lockheed budget administrator Bob Best. Also lending a hand to the NEFR cause is long-time environmental activist Kelly Meagher, who helped spearhead a successful 1988 ballot measure against a massive residential development called Rancho Arroyo. The development’s opponents defeated the project, even though they were outspent in the campaign by a nearly 20-1 margin.

What happens if Measure A passes?
If Measure A passes, the permit process will begin to move forward, a consulting firm will be hired to design the project, and a notice for bids for an architect and a builder will be posted. At the earliest, groundbreaking would commence in about one year. However, a lawsuit filed by the project opponents challenging the adequacy of both the environmental-impact report and the General Plan amendment will no doubt have some effect on how the project proceeds should A pass.

What happens if it fails?
If Measure A fails, all that means is that the project may not be brought up again by the Chico City Council for one year from the date of the election. Conceivably the council could reagendize it for a meeting sometime after June 5, 2002, and try to push it through the process again. The folks against it could once again try to collect the required number of valid signatures and file for a referendum. Or the council could choose to place the issue on the ballot itself; next year is an election year, so it would not have to be a special election. Of course, in a year’s time the project’s estimated cost would increase because asphalt, the material most used in such a project, is petroleum based and its cost is almost sure to rise. Again, the outcome of the lawsuit will dictate to no small degree how things play out in the future.