The scrap continues

Judge rules against city, deems Move the Junkyard referendum valid

City Councilman Karl Ory (foreground) was named individually in a city lawsuit against Move the Junkyard, of which he was a part. Attorney Jim McCabe provided legal services for the group pro bono.

City Councilman Karl Ory (foreground) was named individually in a city lawsuit against Move the Junkyard, of which he was a part. Attorney Jim McCabe provided legal services for the group pro bono.

Photo by Robert Speer

Chico Scrap Metal is not a big business compared to, say, its neighbor across East 20th Street, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. But it’s hard to think of any local enterprise that has commanded the public’s attention—and that of City Council members—for longer and with more intensity than this funky metal-recycling outfit.

For more than a decade, people have been arguing over whether CSM should be required to move its operation elsewhere, as is called for in the 2004 Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan. The tussle has been characterized by heated debate, see-sawing City Council decisions, passage of a controversial ordinance (Ordinance 2490) followed by a successful referendum drive challenging that ordinance and, most recently, a city- generated lawsuit challenging that referendum. That decision came despite the business’ owners saying they would consider moving should the city offer financial assistance.

On Friday (Jan. 12), just prior to a hearing on the lawsuit, Butte County Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger issued a tentative ruling based on written pleadings that validated the referendum. Following a continued hearing on Tuesday (Jan. 16), she finalized that judgment.

Does this mean that the status of Chico Scrap Metal has been settled? Hardly.

Some relevant history: In October 2016, the council passed Ordinance 2490 by a 4-to-3 vote along party lines. After years of delays and deadline extensions, during which CSM fought tooth and nail to avoid having to move, the ordinance amended the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan to allow CSM to stay put forever.

Soon afterward, on Nov. 8, Election Day, a group calling itself Move the Junkyard began circulating referendum petitions seeking a vote on Ordinance 2490. In a month’s time, it gathered more than 9,000 signatures, easily sufficient to put the referendum on an upcoming ballot.

One of the leaders of the referendum effort was former Mayor Karl Ory, who also led the “Save the Farmers’ Market” petition drive in 2014 that garnered more than 5,000 signatures and convinced the City Council to abandon its effort to move the market to another location. Ironically, Ory was re-elected to the council on Nov. 8, 2016, the same day Move the Junkyard began its referendum drive.

Butte County Clerk Candace Grubbs certified the validity of the referendum petitions on Dec. 28. At that point, the council had two options: rescind its ordinance or put the referendum on the ballot.

It chose to do neither. Instead its conservative majority voted to sue Move the Junkyard.

The city’s lawsuit charged that the referendum’s petition language was incomplete and that the ordinance was an administrative, not a legislative, act and therefore not subject to referendum.

Following Mosbarger’s final ruling Tuesday that the lawsuit was without merit, backers of the referendum who gathered outside the courtroom were jubilant.

The Chico City Council was scheduled to meet in closed session at its regularly scheduled meeting that evening. Its options: to place the referendum on an upcoming ballot, to appeal Mosbarger’s ruling, or to rescind the ordinance.

Move the Junkyard’s preference would be to rescind, Ory said. Elections are expensive, as are lawsuit appeals. “It’s time for the city to stop playing games and wasting taxpayers’ money,” he said.

Rescission would return CSM’s status to what it was in October 2016, before passage of Ordinance 2490. At that time it was considered an illegal, nonconforming use in violation of the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan and the city’s general plan.

For her part, Mosbarger was eager to help the parties avoid greater expense. “I’m very mindful of the high cost of litigation,” she told the attorneys. With their agreement, she scheduled a case management conference for Feb. 23.

But the council chose the litigious route. The four conservatives voted to appeal (see Howard Hardee’s story on page 10 for the details).