The accidental ‘communicator’
Maria Phillips is a Chico businesswoman who’s never been active in politics. So why is she so involved in the effort to head off the proposed M&T gravel mine?
Sitting in her Avenue 9 Gallery just off The Esplanade, surrounded by colorful oil paintings and other pieces of art, Maria Phillips seems slightly amazed that a sand and gravel mine proposed for a site way out by the Sacramento River has taken so much of her time and energy lately.
The night before she was at a meeting until well after 11, preparing a presentation for the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday (April 24), when the supervisors will take up the proposal for the first time.
“Here I am, 62 years old and doing something political for the first time in my life,” she said, her voice still carrying a musical accent from a childhood spent in Italy, where she was born, and Venezuela, where she lived for eight years. With her tousled mane of brown hair, she looks vaguely like the Italian movie actress Anna Magnani.
She says she’s often asked herself why she’s suddenly become an activist, “and I guess the best answer is that I’ve been watching so many wrong-headed things being done by the Bush administration and feeling so frustrated that I had to do something. You know that expression, ‘Think globally, act locally'? This is something I can do in my own backyard.”
“This” is her emerging role as the chief media-relations person—or “communicator,” as she puts it—for the loosely knit group of people who are fighting Baldwin Contracting Co.'s proposal to put a large open-pit mine on 235 acres of farm land bordering Little Chico Creek on the M&T Ranch, about five miles west of Chico and a mile-and-a-half from the river.
Most of the group’s members are neighbors of the proposed site. They’ve been fighting the project, off and on, for more than a decade. Lately, with Baldwin’s newest effort to move the proposal through the county’s permitting process, the effort has heated up.
Enter Maria Phillips—almost accidentally, as it turns out.
Phillips was born in Rome just as American forces were liberating it from fascism at the end of World War II. “My family wanted to come to America because they were so admiring of the American heroes,” she said. It was hard to get a visa, however, so the family ended up living in Venezuela for eight years. Phillips was 11 when she finally arrived in Los Angeles. By then she spoke Spanish, French and English in addition to Italian.
“It was so lovely to come here because this was the land of freedom and opportunity for all,” she explained. “Of course, I knew nothing of what was going on in the South, with civil rights. But I’m so happy that we bought the whole line because it’s given me the feeling that I have a right to speak up and my government will listen.”
She attended UCLA, eventually obtaining a Ph.D. in art history with an emphasis in architecture and urban planning.
Phillips’ mother and sister are long-time residents of Chico, and she herself moved to Durham in 1990. A few years ago, she and her husband, Bob Klang, attended a meeting at the town’s branch library called to discuss the mine proposal. The place was standing room only, Phillips said; “everybody in Durham must have been there.”
The Durham residents were concerned about heavy truck traffic through their town, but Phillips quickly realized that most of the trucks would be going through Chico, a city she loved. In her first overt political act, she contacted then-Mayor Scott Gruendl to alert him to this potential problem.
She continued to study the project and attend meetings. In 2005 she moved to Chico, and finally, in 2006, she took action again, writing a Guest Comment article, “Gravel mine would be the pits,” for the Dec. 14 issue of this newspaper.
“It turns out that I have some skills that can be used,” she said. As the co-owner of an art gallery, she’s accomplished in the use of digital imagery and also knows something about packaging and marketing information. “By default I ended up being the communicator.”
As such, she’s been in frequent contact with local media, written numerous letters to the editor, spoken before the county Planning Commission and even organized a plein-air painting excursion to the area so local artists could paint and celebrate its natural beauty.
The proposed mine is a huge project, an “industrial behemoth,” in Phillips’ words, that would be plopped down in an area rich in prime farm land and wildlife habitat. The land is zoned for agricultural use, but the zoning does allow for mining with a use permit.
The mine would generate some 33,000 truck trips annually, with most of them passing through Chico to points east, especially Baldwin’s plant off the lower Skyway.
Nearby residents are unanimously opposed to it, as is the Parrott Investment Co., which owns the 18,000-acre Llano Seco Ranch just to the south. The Butte County Farm Bureau is also opposed to the project because it will remove good farm land from production and also because of its potential impact on neighboring farms, and the city of Chico is against it because of potential traffic impacts.
Baldwin, which is the largest road-construction company in Butte County, has pointed out that the mine will save travel time for its trucks and thereby reduce the cost of the aggregate, which in turn will allow the company to lower its bids on construction projects, saving taxpayers money. It will also enable the county to collect the extraction fees other counties are now getting.
General Manager René Vercruyssen Jr. and a number of his employees told county planning commissioners that Baldwin is an excellent company whose union workers enjoy middle-class incomes, and the mine will ensure its ability to continue doing good work for the county.
On Jan. 25, the Planning Commission approved Baldwin’s proposal, 3-2, after lengthy hearings that stretched over three meetings. The two Chico-area commissioners, Chuck Nelson and Nina Lambert, concerned about its potential truck-traffic impacts on Chico, dissented.
Opponents appealed that decision to the supervisors. Before considering the appeal, however, the supervisors first must decide whether to allow the property to be removed from Williamson Act protection, something they would have had to do anyway. Under terms of the act, the Oregon-based owners of the M&T Ranch have paid lower property taxes in return for guaranteeing the land will remain agricultural.
To remove it from ag use, the board must agree that “overriding considerations” make it worth doing. What that means, Phillips says, is that Baldwin must have a need for gravel that cannot be met otherwise.
However, Vercruyssen acknowledged before the Planning Commission that Baldwin can obtain gravel elsewhere, Phillips points out. And the supervisors themselves recently voted unanimously to lease out a site on county land near Oroville for a gravel mine, so where’s the overriding consideration?
If the supervisors do remove the land from the act and then go on to deny the appeal, thereby approving the mine, opponents will have two options: attempt to put a referendum on the ballot or file a lawsuit.
Baldwin is owned by a big Midwestern corporation, so it could easily finance a media campaign, making the referendum route difficult, Phillips says. “In the end, the legal course may be the only one we have, which means we’ll be doing a lot of fund-raisers. But it will be a shame if this ends up lining the pockets of lawyers.”
If the supervisors decide not to release the land from agricultural use, Baldwin will have to wait nine years before its current Williamson Act contract expires, “but by that time there will be a new [county] general plan, if nothing else,” Phillips noted.
She is quick to credit the neighbors opposing the mine. “They’ve been working closely together for so long,” she said. “I haven’t been spearheading anything. It just turns out that I’ve been able to serve these people in the capacity of communicator.”