Two thorny issues

City Council bites the bullet on Esplanade, Chico Scrap Metal

Students cross The Esplanade in the uncontrolled crosswalk at West Sacramento Avenue on Wednesday morning on their way to Chico High School.

Students cross The Esplanade in the uncontrolled crosswalk at West Sacramento Avenue on Wednesday morning on their way to Chico High School.

Photo by Howard Hardee

How important is it to preserve an iconic historic roadway in its present condition if it’s clearly unsafe for many of the people who use it?

Is it fair to shut down a business because it doesn’t conform to a neighborhood plan enacted long after it began operating?

These thorny questions confronted Chico City Council members at their meeting Tuesday, May 3, and by the time they answered them, they had more than earned their pittance of pay.

The first difficult question had to do with the Esplanade Safety and Improvement Study, which the council had approved, 4-3, at a special meeting April 14. At that time, Mayor Mark Sorensen joined Councilmembers Ann Schwab, Tami Ritter and Randall Stone in voting to approve its 11 recommendations, which included putting roundabouts at two Esplanade intersections, East First Avenue and Memorial Way.

That decision elicited such a loud public outcry that Stone soon rescinded his vote and called for a reconsideration. On Tuesday, the council voted, 6-1, with Schwab dissenting, not to put in either of the Esplanade roundabouts. Schwab said she wanted to keep the options open.

Tuesday’s discussion of The Esplanade, held in a special meeting before the panel’s regular meeting, was supposed to be about only the two elements of the study authorizing the two roundabouts and one dealing with the twice-daily congestion around Chico High School. However, a number of the more than two dozen citizens who commented wanted the council to throw out the entire study and start over. Councilmembers Andrew Coolidge and Reanette Fillmer and Vice Mayor Sean Morgan agreed with them.

That would have meant abandoning the eight elements approved in April that would make the boulevard more compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements as well as safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Among them is a provision authorizing a separate two-lane bicycle path along the former railroad right-of-way on the east side of the boulevard.

Sorensen instead moved that the city go ahead with seeking grants for those eight elements while city staff examined possible alternatives to the roundabouts and solutions to the Chico High congestion.

“We need to figure out what the corner of The Esplanade and First Avenue is going to look like,” he said.

Several speakers said that the city’s first priority should be to respect the roadway’s historical significance as an iconic boulevard.

To which Ritter responded sharply, “I disagree that the historical aspect has to come first. Safety has to come first.”

Sorensen noted that, as part of its environmental review, the Esplanade project will require a historical analysis. He also pointed out that, when its preliminary designs are completed, they will be subject to further public hearings, at which time they can be changed as the council sees fit.

Schwab, Stone and Ritter joined Sorensen in voting to approve his motion to proceed with the eight approved elements and directed staff to continue trying to find alternatives to the roundabouts and the congestion at Chico High.

The other thorny issue confronting the council had to do with Chico Scrap Metal, the recycling business on East 20th Street across from the Sierra Nevada brewery and contiguous to the Chapmantown residential neighborhood.

For more than a decade, CSM has been out of compliance with the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan, which calls for the removal of industrial uses in the residential neighborhood. It is also out of compliance with the city’s general plan.

Under a process called amortization, the neighborhood plan gives industrial businesses a certain amount of time to move. Five of six targeted businesses have moved; only CSM remains, having been given two extensions.

It’s a uniquely complicated case, however. For one, this is the second time the city has required CSM to move (it originally was located on Humboldt Avenue), and it occupied the site long before the neighborhood plan was developed. Second, the city has allowed Habitat for Humanity to build several houses right next to CSM with the promise that CSM would soon be gone. Third, CSM provides a valuable recycling service. And, fourth, the plan calls for the city and county to help CSM move, which they have not done.

Dozens of members of the public addressed the council on the issue. Most of them favored the amortization.

Kim Scott, who heads the family-owned business, told the council that the three properties she’s found that conceivably could house CSM each would cost more than $1 million. Her business will fold if the city forces it to move, she said.

And, Sorensen asked, who would want to buy the lot when CSM is gone? “It will sit vacant,” he said. He foresaw a referendum and possible lawsuits in the future.

The four conservatives on the panel voted nay on Stone’s motion to proceed with amortization. After a long pause at the dais, Sorensen moved to approve a development agreement with CSM that would allow it to stay put by eliminating the amortization stipulation while requiring it to upgrade its property to make it more compatible with the neighborhood. It passed 4-3, with Schwab, Stone and Ritter dissenting. The mayor also directed staff to investigate by the next reading of the agreement a solution that would appease everyone (for more on that, see “Hail Mary,” page 4).