Votes for sale?
Apartment project opponents question councilmembers’ intentions in wake of $1,000 campaign contributions
“We’re not ‘not in our back yard’ people,” says Karen Schuller, one of the more vocal members of a neighborhood group trying to keep a Houston-based construction company from building a high-density student apartment complex along the east side of Highway 32 between Eighth and 12th avenues and right next to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
A group of those folks turned up at the Feb. 19 Chico City Council meeting to address the issue, even though Sterling University Housing, the project’s builder, had requested the matter be taken off the agenda until project leaders could reassess their plans in the face of the considerable opposition.
The project comes before the council because a zoning change from light manufacturing to medium-high-density residential is needed before any apartments can be built, a decision that falls under the council’s purview. Currently the site is an old almond orchard, which suits the neighbors just fine. Now Sterling is starting over from scratch, taking it back to the Planning Commission and looking for a less-dense project in hopes the neighbors will accept it
However, neighbors like Schuller, Mary Brownlee and Linda Rowen have suddenly become politically active over what has become the most controversial issue in Chico—where and how the city grows. And it’s been an eye-opening experience for many. They showed up at the meeting to ask Councilmembers Steve Bertagna and Rick Keene how in good conscience they could vote on a project after Sterling recently had given each man $1,000 in campaign funds. (Keene is running for the state Assembly, Bertagna for District 3 county supervisor.)
The matter is clouded, however, by the fact that the two council members are running for other offices and could be off the council by the end of the year. That could make the $1,000 contributions from Sterling look more like direct purchases of votes rather than an effort to elect developer-friendly councilmembers.
At the end of the meeting, during the agenda’s “business from the floor,” Rowen told the councilmembers the $1,000 contribution “casts doubt on the motivation” Keene and Bertagna bring to the issue. “It just looks bad,” she said.
“We ask Steve Bertagna and Rick Keene to recuse themselves from the vote,"Rowen said.
Keene and Bertagna sat stoned-faced and since no action can be by the council on matters not on the agenda, they said nothing. After the meeting, Keene said he doubted he would exuse himself from the vote when it comes around again.
“The fact is I’ve gotten funding from both sides of the issue,” he said. “I’ve gotten 10 times as much from the oppostion [to the project].”
Schuller says there is nothing good about the project, that it will add too much traffic to an already overloaded Nord Avenue, that it is too close to the railroad tracks because trains and students don’t mix, and that the lease says the apartments will be rented out by the bedroom.
The Chico Planning Commission voted Jan. 17 to forward to the council a recommendation to deny the project because of traffic and neighborhood conflict problems.
The traffic study conducted to assess the impact of the project suggests it will not heavily burden existing traffic flows at intersections simply because most of them already operate at unacceptable levels. There is a bike path nearby, but it runs on the other side of the tracks from where the project would sit, and direct access is not available at this time.
Chico Planning Director Kim Seidler said Sterling, which met with the neighbors last week, now wants to rezone the property to medium density, which allows four to 14 units per acre.
“I think whatever the proposal the neighbors are going to fight it,” said Seidler. “They like what is there now, which is orchards.”
Currently the project, which would see 216 student units built in the first phase and 104 non-student or family units constructed in the second, calls for 16 units per acre, with a total of 320 units on 20 acres.
Seidler says he suspects that from its vantage point in Houston, Sterling sees an “underserved market” here in Chico for rentals. The company builds complexes in college towns across the nation. It currently has plans to build in Davis.
Seidler says Sterling may well scrap these plans and start over again before the Planning Commission.
A few weeks ago Schuller said she was stunned that developers often help fund campaigns for City Council election. This was news to her, she said. For years, however, factions in this town, including this paper, the Butte Environmental Council and other controlled-growth advocates, have suggested that the financial link between developers and certain Chico City Councilmembers is less than healthy for the community. Now a decidedly different group has taken up that cry.
Schuller calls herself a “staunch Republican who gets out and votes.”
“They are not going to go through with this," she promised. "We have a whole lot of tricks still up our sleeves."