Walking the line

City officials consider amending the Greenline

When John Merz says he’s gone to the point of exhaustion in a public meeting, it’s probably time to adjourn.

Merz, a member of the Chico Planning Commission, threw in the towel at about 11 p.m. Tuesday evening (June 22), at what turned out to be the tail end of a joint meeting of the commission and the Chico City Council to discuss the city’s draft general plan.

“It was a doozy of a meeting,” acknowledged Brendan Vieg, the city’s principal planner.

It took nine hours (from 2-11 p.m.) to review just three components of the 349-page document—its introduction and sustainability and land-use elements.

The Chico 2030 General Plan, so sayeth the city, is a statement of the community’s priorities to guide public decision-making. The document is designed to provide a comprehensive, long-range (20 years) policy framework for the growth and preservation of the city.

Problem is, the community is divided when it comes to those concepts.

By far, the most controversial topic of the long session was the possibility of annexing a region along Estes Road for development. That’s what several property owners within the area asked of the panels. Duke Warren said that 11 of 13 landowners in the area had signed a petition seeking annexation into the city and removal from the Greenline—a boundary established in 1982 to protect the county’s prime ag lands west of urban areas.

Warren complained that his property—surrounded by adjacent urban uses—made it too difficult to maintain the parcels as viable ag land. “We are a county agricultural area in a city urban environment,” he said.

Nearby resident Bruce Balgouyen claimed that the area has some of the best soil around, and that Warren, his neighbor, killed his almond orchard by ceasing to care for it. Moreover, Estes Road is home to the widely known “Riparia” property, where the GRUB collective grows produce for its popular community-supported-agriculture program.

City Councilwoman Mary Flynn appeared most in favor of considering the area for development, saying she viewed the change as a correction of the Greenline. The property is close to downtown and an island of county land surrounded by the city, she noted.

“It’s an ideal infill site, and to not acknowledge it would be disappointing,” Flynn said.

According to the draft plan, growth trends indicate that the city’s population will jump by more than 40,000, to close to 140,000 residents in 20 years. If so, the community will need about 16,000 additional dwelling units.

The question is, where should they go? As Flynn referenced, one of the focuses of the land-use element is on infill (i.e. building on empty plots within the city’s core). Under the draft, there also are numerous places scattered elsewhere around the region that are outlined for future development. Five of them—Bell-Muir, Diamond Match, Doe Mill/Honey Run, North Chico and South Entler—are designated as “special planning areas,” which essentially means the properties have been identified as regions with new growth potential.

Dozens of people spoke during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Most of the concerns dealt with future planned developments, such as the Diamond Match property in southwest Chico. Debbie Villaseñor was concerned about a number of potential impacts of a new mixed-use development in the historic Barber neighborhood, including traffic, a lack of public transportation and the possible construction of five-story structures.

Building in Bell-Muir drew concerns from several people, including Suzanne Morlock, a 20-year resident of the region, who said nearby developments have increased traffic and noise issues significantly in the quiet region of northwest Chico.

Earlier, Planning Commissioner Susan Minasian called upon her colleagues to place an emphasis in the general plan on saving Chico’s farming communities, calling part of document biased against ag interests. She was referring to language denoting that infrastructure needs in the Bell-Muir area are the constraint when it comes to developing the region. What she would like to see, she said, is a counterbalance noting that the region includes prime agricultural land.

“If we let agriculture go, what’s the point of sustainability?” she asked. “We better make sure we protect agriculture.”

In the end, the City Council designated the Estes region as an area of study, rather than an area for planning. It held firm, though, when it came to the Bell-Muir area, directing staff that it should remain an SPA.

In other news, during the sustainability discussion city staff indicated that the panel is interested in lessening the financial burden for residents interested in keeping hens in low-density residential neighborhoods. Currently, a use-permit for fowl carries fees of about $1,500.

The city will continue its series of general-plan meetings July 24, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with discussion of traffic circulation, downtown and economic development on the agenda.