Mistakes, failures of vision and lost opportunities put houses on the edge of Upper Bidwell Park
“Tragic.” That’s the word supervisor candidates Maureen Kirk and Steve Bertagna both used recently to describe the addition of several large, highly visible houses above the south side of Chico’s Upper Bidwell Park in the past few years.
“We need to make sure this never happens again,” Kirk stated at a late-April candidates’ forum. Bertagna agreed."Tragic” may be overstating it slightly. We’re talking about a viewshed problem, not the outbreak of war, after all. And it’s hard to argue that the houses are a worse visual blight than the PG&E transmission lines and poles that cross the park just to the west of them. As bad, perhaps, but not worse.
But the power poles have been there for decades; we’ve gotten at least somewhat used to them, even if we will always hate the way they bestride the park like so many iron giants. And, as commanding as they are, they don’t claim ownership of the park. They appear to be passing through, carrying power from one place to another.
The houses, in contrast, seem rooted there. In the way they’ve been planted on the hillside and positioned facing down-canyon, and in their largeness and expensiveness, they appear to be staking a claim to Upper Park. “See what money can buy?” they seem to ask: “A view of the people’s park!”
It’s as if Chico’s “crown jewel” has gotten another big chip in it.
When Kirk and Bertagna, election opponents and philosophical opposites, agree that the presence of the houses above the park is “tragic,” it’s a sign of consensus in the community. It would be hard to find anyone willing to say the structures are a welcome addition to Upper Park’s viewshed.
But how did they get there? How did Upper Park, Chicoans’ favorite retreat from the busy city, become the personal viewscape of a select group? And will the city be able to “make sure this never happens again"?
Getting the answers to these questions is not easy. No one person fully understands what happened during the approval process for the Canyon Oaks subdivision, of which the houses are part. Changes in city staff, the fact that Canyon Oaks was approved in stages, reams of documents and fading memories of a process that began in the early 1980s make it hard to track the sequence of events.
In March of 2005, city Planning Director Kim Seidler, speaking to the Bidwell Park and Playgrounds Commission, attempted to explain how the houses had been approved. “I think a number of individual mistakes were made that add up to a larger cumulative one that resulted in what we see today,” he said.
But it was more than a series of “individual mistakes,” though there were plenty of those. There was an overall failure of vision—the inability of many people, including members of the City Council, to imagine the impact the houses would have on the park. And major assumptions were made that proved to be wrong.
In addition, there was a failure to implement the agreed-upon mitigation measures in the project’s original environmental-impact report. And there is a strong possibility that the true southern boundary of Bidwell Park was redrawn and moved to the north, allowing the houses to be placed closer to the canyon edge.
Finally, there was a great lost opportunity, a moment early in the history of the project, when Bidwell Park’s viewshed could have been saved—but wasn’t.
The most visible Canyon Oaks houses, about a half-dozen of them, are a problem because of their size and the prominence of their location. They’re grand houses, and they sit in a “saddle” located just east of the power lines that is well below the ridge line, about a quarter of the way from the top. This gives the impression that they are right in the park, though technically they aren’t.
They’re not the first houses overlooking the park. For many years there was a single house up there, the Simmons home, which belonged to the family that once owned the cattle ranch on which the Canyon Oaks and California Park subdivisions now sit. It’s still there, a modest, ranch-style dwelling with a low roof set back from the rim, with such a subdued presence that it is hardly noticeable.
In the early 1990s, a couple of larger houses appeared down-canyon from the Simmons home. These were part of the Falcon’s Point project, a tony gated subdivision on county land. Because of their down-canyon location above the golf course, most visitors to Upper Park either didn’t notice or weren’t bothered by them.
Then the Canyon Oaks houses started popping up.
Most Chicoans probably haven’t been to Canyon Oaks. Unless you live there or are visiting someone, you have no reason to go there—and no way to get past the gate.
The subdivision covers some 650 acres on the eastern edge of town, with about 250 houses sitting on large lots surrounding the private Canyon Oaks Golf Course. The houses are big and expensive, all worth the better part of a million dollars and many worth considerably more.
Canyon Oaks is located in a shallow canyon formed by Dead Horse Slough just south of Bidwell Park. Most of it is hidden from Bidwell Park by the ridge between the two canyons. From the beginning, only a small number of lots on the subdivision’s northern edge presented a potential threat to Upper Park’s viewshed.
Canyon Oaks was developed in several stages, or phases, beginning with a master plan and environmental-impact report completed in 1986. Each phase required its own subdivision map and environmental assessment, but it could rely on the original EIR for an overall view.
In addressing the viewshed issue, the EIR, which was done by Redding-based Planning Associates, makes several fundamental assumptions that few people challenged over the years. These assumptions and others, and the failure to question them, led directly to the intrusion into Big Chico Creek Canyon.
Assumption No. 1: It’s OK for the houses to be visible from some areas of the park.
The EIR clearly states that it is acceptable for the houses to be visible from the North Rim Trail as long as they are not visible from the “high-use areas” of the park—defined as the Upper Park Road corridor and the Horseshoe Lake area.
One of the few people to challenge this assumption was Steve Evans, then the general manager of the Butte Environmental Council. In his written comments on the draft EIR, Evans noted: “The Upper Bidwell Park road is not a ‘high-use’ area as stated in the DEIR, it is simply the transportation route utilized by park users. Although the development may be screened from the creek, golf course and the Five-Mile Recreation Area, it will be very prominent from anywhere in Bidwell Park north of the road, especially areas intended primarily for primitive use such as the North Rim Trail.”
In other words, the houses will be visible from most of the park, not just the North Rim Trail. He was right. In fact, they are even visible from several spots along the road and from the Yahi Trail next to Big Chico Creek, both “high-use areas.”
Assumption No. 2: The fact that Chico can be seen from the North Rim Trail means that the view from there is already tainted by urban images.
Responding to Evans’ comments, the final EIR restated its earlier assumptions, adding only that “…it should be noted that although the proposed development would be visible from the North Rim Trail, the entire urban fabric of Chico is similarly visible.”
In other words, the EIR is saying, because the town of Chico is visible from the North Rim Trail, it is acceptable for houses located along the south rim of the park to be visible from there too.
But most people would agree that there’s a huge difference between the view of Chico spread out on the valley floor below and the sight of a half-dozen big houses plopped down on the hillside halfway up the canyon. One is a sought-after feature; the other is visual blight. Nobody seemed—or wanted—to understand this at the time.
Assumption No. 3: The project couldn’t have been approved without allowing houses to be visible from North Rim Trail.
This assumption is still operant today. “It would not have been possible to approve the Canyon Oaks project if views from the North Rim Trail had been considered unacceptable,” Seidler wrote in an e-mail.
Tom Hayes, a former senior planner with the city, echoed Seidler, saying that it’s a simple matter of geography: “The North Rim Trail is higher than Canyon Oaks.” Hayes was an associate planner when he was given, as his first responsibility after being hired by the city, responsibility for shepherding the original Canyon Oaks proposal through the approval process.
Seidler and Hayes are right—up to a point. The “saddle” on the south side of the canyon is indeed lower than the North Rim Trail, and the nine or 10 houses planned for its view lots overlooking Upper Park certainly would have been visible from the North Rim Trail.
But these were negotiable lots, as became clear shortly after the City Council approved the project on Oct. 7, 1986. Opponents, led by BEC’s Evans and Kelly Meagher, launched a referendum signature drive seeking to overturn the approval, and on Nov. 5 they filed their petitions with the City Clerk’s Office. (The day before, Election Day, Chico voters had approved an advisory measure calling for a buffer zone around Bidwell Park.)
The possible referendum threatened to put the project on hold until at least the next election and, if it was successful then, as seemed likely, stop Canyon Oaks in its tracks. The developers, represented by Steve Honeycutt, entered into negotiations with the environmentalists. In the end they worked out a compromise in which Honeycutt agreed to numerous changes in the project, including dedication of land for a 125-acre park. He also agreed to delete most of the lots on the north side of the ridge between Canyon Oaks and Bidwell Park, including those in the “saddle,” and move them elsewhere in the project. In return, the environmentalists would withdraw the referendum.
“We thought we had a deal,” said John Merz, one of opponents involved in the negotiations.
It fell apart, unfortunately, when BEC’s attorney, Paul Persons, who had not been involved in the negotiations, insisted that the referendum could not be withdrawn. “I felt that my commitment as an attorney was to give people the opportunity to vote on the measure,” he said recently.
At that point, Honeycutt backed out.
Had the compromise succeeded, “it would have been just phenomenal,” Hayes said recently.
Persons assumed the referendum would make the ballot. A few weeks later, however, the city clerk refused to certify the petitions, saying they had been incorrectly filled out. It was a technicality—some signers had provided their current addresses, not the addresses they had when they registered—but it was enough to disqualify them. Persons appealed the decision all the way to the state Supreme Court, but with no success. There would be no referendum vote.
This was a huge lost opportunity. The negotiations indicated that the developers were willing to compromise when pressured to do so. The City Council was either unwilling or saw no need to apply such pressure.
Assumption No. 4: The tentative subdivision map and the mitigation measures in the EIR would be implemented so as to make the houses invisible from most areas of the park.
The original map for the subdivision called for a large conservation easement, or common open space, along the northern boundary of Canyon Oaks. In addition, the EIR called for rear-yard setbacks of the houses from 50 to 250 feet from the edge of the open space. Both provisions were designed to minimize viewshed intrusion.
In 2001, however, it was discovered there was more of an endangered plant—Sidalcea robusta, or checkerbloom—on Canyon Oaks land than previously realized. To protect the plant, the road on the north side of Dead Horse Slough was placed farther to the north. This pushed the lots planned for that side in the same direction.
As a result, Seidler told the Park Commission in 2005, “the common open space in the north became part of individual lots"—it was gone, in other words. Though this was a significant change in the design of the project that moved the houses much closer to the canyon rim, its impact on the viewshed was never examined.
Another important mitigation measure was that the houses would be limited to 20 feet in height. Some of the houses, however, were built on slopes, and the 20 feet was measured from the average point, not the lowest, Hayes said. A house that was 15 feet high on the street side thus could be 25 feet high on the canyon side.
Assumption No. 5: The boundary line between Bidwell Park and Canyon Oaks as drawn on the developers’ maps is accurate.
When the Canyon Oaks parcel map was drawn, it was based on a 1983 map that included a boundary-line modification. Exactly how it changed the line was not noted, however.
John Schooling, a retired attorney who lives in Canyon Oaks, has been investigating that boundary line for some time. He’s a hiker, so his principal interest is in protecting trails that are in danger of being closed off by houses, especially a section of the South Rim Trail that passes through the yet-to-be-developed Parcel 9, the most easterly part of the project. Coincidentally, his investigation provides a significant new twist to the viewshed issue.
Annie Bidwell’s original 1905 deed gave a significant portion of the south side of Big Chico Creek Canyon to the city for parkland—nearly a mile and a half of land along the bluff on the south side. (The city’s 1995 acquisition of the rest of the south side of the canyon picked up where she left off.) In a detailed and remarkably sophisticated analysis, Schooling has shown that the line as depicted on a 1951 U.S. Geological Survey topographical map is virtually the same as the line delineated in the “metes and bounds” description in the original Bidwell deed.
The line on the subdivision maps, however, is farther to the north.
If Schooling is correct, several of the houses that are so visible from Upper Park aren’t set back at all from the park boundary line. They’re right up next to it. They may even be partly in the park.
Nothing in the documents filed with the city suggest that anbody in city government—not planning staffers, not planning commissioners or city councilmembers—ever questioned the boundary lines drawn on the developers’ maps.
The result of this chain of mistakes, lapses and failures of vision is there for all to see. Looking back on the Canyon Oaks project, people like Hayes and Pam Figge, a retired senior planner who worked on it, and Clif Sellers, who is now assistant general services director but was planning director at the time, first point to the original EIR as being weak. “There just wasn’t enough information and teeth in the original EIR,” Figge said.
The visual analysis was flawed, Seidler told the Park Commission: “It didn’t take enough of the proposed lots into consideration,” and it relied on a single worst-case lot that wasn’t, in fact, the worst case.
The staff lacked the technical ability to challenge the visual analysis, Figge said, adding: “We have much better ways of doing a visual analysis today.”
Another problem was that the project was approved in phases over more than 15 years. That meant that different people were working on different parts of it, often at different times, Sellers said. Each was left to read the history of the project—if they could find their ways through the mounds of documents—in his or her own way, and “often they didn’t know of each other,” he added.
It was also the first hillside project the city ever had handled. Hayes admits he wasn’t ready for such a complex and controversial project. “Our goof-up was that we didn’t understand hillside development,” he explained.
Figge agrees. “We had a lot of new people then. They were inexperienced. And it was like cowboy planning then—no signed agreements, weak analysis, you name it.”
They also were still new to CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which mandates environmental assessment of projects. Though it passed in 1970, “people didn’t really get with it until the 1990s,” Figge said. The Canyon Oaks EIR, she added, “is not a document that stands the test of time.”
Ultimately, though, the responsibility lies with the citizenry. With the exception of a few clear-eyed people in the environmental community, Chicoans failed to monitor and understand this project as we should have or listen to them when they warned us of its consequences. And the members of the City Council, who were fully informed of the potential the project had to blemish Upper Park, failed to take it seriously—and so failed to protect the park.
One last phase of Canyon Oaks—Parcel 9, the easternmost section—remains to be developed. The owners expect to submit a parcel map soon. Most of its 46 acres are on the south side of the ridge line, so it doesn’t pose much threat to the viewshed.
Nevertheless, Seidler says, it will get scrutinized closely. “I am confident that there will not be additional new homes … that will be visible from the high-use areas,” he told the Park Commission.
If you think that’s not good enough, that the houses shouldn’t be visible anywhere in the park, you need to let your City Council know.