Welcome to the neighborhood

Has the time finally come for Chapman/Mulberry to join the city?

Chapmantown’s former leaders have become inactive, creating a leadership vacuum, says Ron Angle, shown here in front of the Dorothy Johnson Center.

Chapmantown’s former leaders have become inactive, creating a leadership vacuum, says Ron Angle, shown here in front of the Dorothy Johnson Center.

photo by robert speer

On the south side of Chico are two residential neighborhoods—Chapmantown and the Mulberry district—that are tucked away just enough to be nearly invisible to most people. Unless they live there, are visiting someone who does, or work at Chapman Elementary School, they’ve got no reason to venture into them.

The neighborhoods are anomalies in another way, as well. Surrounded by the city, they are the last major “urban islands” of county land in greater Chico, semi-rural enclaves where property is cheap, services are few, and folks mind their own business.

Many residents like it that way. They don’t want anything to do with the city—not even the right to vote in city elections. Although they drive on city streets and roads, work in the city, shop in the city, enjoy city-owned parks, and in numerous ways are affected by decisions made by the City Council and city commissions, they prefer to remain politically separate.

This was amply evident on Aug. 19, when the City Council deliberated whether to sign an agreement between the city and the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) that would have led, in five years’ time, to annexation of the two neighborhoods, which together comprise 138 acres and about 1,300 residents. LAFCo had approved the agreement unanimously on Aug. 7.

About 10 people spoke on the issue, and all were opposed to annexation. Wanda Story, a longtime resident of Chapmantown, told the council, “You can’t offer me anything I don’t already have.”

Others pointed out that the city, with its financial problems, was in no shape to take on more responsibility. As 82-year-old Jackie McKenney, whose family has lived in Chapmantown since 1929, put it, “You can’t take care of the city you’ve got.”

Donald Cook, who lives in the Mulberry district, agreed with her. “I can’t really see what I’m going to gain from it,” he said. “I don’t want sidewalks, I don’t want gutters. I like my little island in the county.”

Lifelong Chapmantown resident Floyd Wood

photo by robert speer

Former Butte County Supervisor Jane Dolan, who represented the neighborhoods for more than 30 years, insisted that the residents, “not a bureaucratic self-selected committee” such as LAFCo, should be able to decide whether their neighborhood was annexed. Let them learn about and discuss the issue and decide for themselves, she urged.

Council members seemed to think annexation was unavoidable. “This is kind of a prearranged wedding here,” Vice Mayor Mark Sorensen said. “It’s a question not of if, but when. I figure annexation will happen in less than five years even without this agreement.”

Council members weren’t happy about it, however. “This is the worst time for the city to annex,” Councilwoman Ann Schwab asserted.

Ultimately, the council tabled the matter to obtain more information about annexation’s impacts and to make sure residents were fully notified of the potential for annexation.

At this point the agreement is slated for further consideration at the council’s Oct. 21 meeting. The momentum—legal and otherwise—suggests the council will hold its collective nose and approve it, but you never know. Some council members have indicated they are opposed on principle to forced annexation, but does a majority of the panel feel that way?

And even if the council nixes the agreement, will the neighborhoods be protected from annexation? And will residents ever get to vote on it? Read on.

The Chapmantown neighborhood, or at least the unincorporated part of it, is located between Little Chico Creek and East 16th Street on the north and south, and Boucher Street and the 20th Street Community Park on the west and east (see map).

Like the Mulberry neighborhood—a smaller area of about six square blocks just east of Fair Street and north of the fairgrounds—Chapmantown is a mix of dwelling types. Many of its houses are neatly tended and carefully maintained by their working-class owners. Others are in varying stages of disrepair, from only slightly run-down to decrepit. Single-family homes are interspersed with single-wides, duplexes, small apartment complexes, empty lots and the occasional small church.

Former County Supervisor Jane Dolan represented Chapman/Mulberry for 32 years and worked hard on its behalf. She believes that residents deserve to be able to vote on annexation.

CN&R file photo by kyle delmar

Unlike most of Chico, Chapmantown has no sidewalks, curbs or gutters. Street lights are few and far between. Human waste goes into septic systems, not the city sewer.

Residents opposed to annexation say they like it this way. The neighborhood, with its abundance of trees, has a rural feel, and they enjoy being able to see the stars at night.

They’re proud of the fact that Chapmantown is the most diverse neighborhood in Chico, with a higher percentage of people of color—Latino, black, Southeast Asian—than any other. Historically, it’s been thought of as Chico’s “poor neighborhood,” where housing costs are lower than elsewhere, which explains why it has attracted many recent immigrants.

If its residents are put off by being referred to as Chico’s “poor neighborhood,” they don’t show it. By and large they’re rather proud of their little community, of its uniqueness and grit and diversity.

Longtime residents have known for years that eventually Chapmantown will be annexed to the city. Mark Hooper, a registered nurse who with his wife, Christy Santos, bought a house there in 1979, says at the time his real-estate agent told him it would be annexed in a couple of years. “This isn’t new,” he said. “Everybody knew it was coming.”

The turning point came in 1990. State water-quality officials had determined that the many septic systems on the numerous unincorporated pockets in Chico were contributing to nitrate pollution, and that year they ordered them removed. Since then the city has extended sewer lines without requiring annexation but has annexed 7,000 residents under its voluntary program, increasing the city’s size by 33 percent.

With the annexation earlier this year of an unincorporated island along Stewart Avenue west of Nord Avenue, only two large areas remain in the county: Chapmantown and Mulberry.

In recent years, the city and LAFCo have squabbled over how to bring these neighborhoods into the city. The commission is a state-mandated local agency made up of representatives from various jurisdictions that, among other things, oversees boundary changes to cities and special districts. It is responsible for assuring that boundaries are logical and lead to the efficient provision of services.

When LAFCo bundled 17 homes to this market’s application for annexation, property owners protested in such numbers LAFCo backed off.

photo by brittany waterstradt

LAFCo and the city have butted heads also because of the city’s practice of allowing sewer hookups in the Chapman/Mulberry neighborhood and elsewhere illegally—that is, without requiring that the properties be annexed to the city, without obtaining authorization from LAFCo, and without paying LAFCo’s fees. Some 62 homes have been connected in that way. The practice has been discontinued, but the hookups remain unauthorized.

The conflict came to a head when the commission chairman, Chico attorney Carl Leverenz, suggested in a Dec. 19, 2013, letter to the city that, unless their differences were resolved and an annexation plan was developed, LAFCo might sue.

The letter was discussed at the council’s Jan. 21, 2014, meeting. By then the city had finished extending sewer lines into Chapman/Mulberry but, because of its fiscal crisis, believed it couldn’t afford more annexations.

The city’s community development director, Mark Wolfe, agreed with the commission that the 62 hookups were illegal. “We did make some mistakes,” he told the council at that January meeting.

The council was worried about costs. In 2013 Butte County had done a study, using city of Chico data, on how much it would cost the city to annex the neighborhoods. Although it found that revenues and expenses would be about equal and there would be negligible additional cost to the city, council members were skeptical. (See “FAQs about annexation,” page 23, to see what additional expenses residents will incur under the plan.)

Steve Lucas, LAFCo’s executive officer, reminded the council that annexation doesn’t mandate additional services. However, council members, who know how insistent constituents can be when they want services, weren’t convinced. They voted unanimously to direct city staff to come up with a third option—a “win-win-win solution” for the city, county and LAFCo, as Schwab put it—and to pursue negotiations with LAFCo.

Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl later met with Leverenz, and they agreed to set up an ad-hoc committee to negotiate an agreement that would meet both parties’ needs. Gruendl, Sorensen and Councilwoman Mary Goloff were the city’s representatives on the committee.

Ron Angle and his wife, Jeanne, have lived in Chapmantown since 1990. Most of his neighbors, he insists, do not favor annexation. “If they had a vote today, 70 percent would be opposed,” he said.

Mark Hooper and Christy Santos have lived in Chapmantown for 35 years. Of annexation he says, “Everybody knew it was coming.”

photo by brittany waterstradt

For more than 30 years the area was represented on the county Board of Supervisors by Jane Dolan. She worked hard on Chapman/Mulberry’s behalf, helping its residents organize and prepare a neighborhood plan that remains in effect today. She also had a big role in obtaining funding to help residents with the costs of connecting to the sewer system.

But ever since she lost her 2010 re-election bid to Larry Wahl, “we don’t have a single leader down here,” Angle said. Residents believe the City Council would ignore their needs, but at the same time “any work we try to do with our current supervisor is futile.”

Angle, a freelance writer who has written several guest comments for the CN&R, is like many Chapmantown residents who prefer that government leave them alone. Being in the city would increase code enforcement, they believe, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“A greater issue is the Chico Police Department,” he continued. “Nobody wants them. They have an aggressive form of law enforcement. People fear we’d see a lot of traffic enforcement. There’s an overall distrust. The same is true of Chico city government.”

Floyd Wood agrees. He’s lived his entire life, all 75 years of it, in Chapmantown. For nearly 50 years he’s lived with his wife, Janet, in the house immediately north of the little market formerly called Chinca’s but now renamed the Boucher St. Market. Most days he can be found sitting on his front porch, watching the world go by.

Wood too sees no reason to annex, and plenty of reason not to, including the fact that LAFCo tried to push him into the city.

Here’s how that happened: When the market’s new owner applied to annex to the city, LAFCo bundled his application—something state law allows—with about 15 other properties contiguous to the city limits, all those on the west side of Boucher between 15th Street and Little Chico Creek, including Wood’s house.

Although legally residents have no say in the matter when the city initiates an island annexation less than 150 acres in size, that’s not the case when LAFCo initiates one. Then property owners and residents can protest, and if 25 percent of them do so, LAFCo must hold a vote. If a majority is opposed to the annexation, it fails. Applicants must wait at least a year to reapply.

Several Chapmantown homes sport Chico City Council campaign signs, even though residents cannot vote in city elections.

photo by robert speer

That process was used to annex the Stewart Avenue neighborhood. When the city declined to annex it, LAFCo bundled all the properties in the neighborhood with the application of one property owner. Not enough people protested to force a vote, and the annexation was approved in June.

In response to LAFCo’s move along Boucher, Wood walked up and down the street, talking with residents in the affected area and gathering signatures on letters opposing the annexation. These he delivered personally to LAFCo. When Lucas and others at LAFCo saw how many people had signed, they realized the bundled application wouldn’t survive a vote, canceled it and went forward with annexing only the market.

Despite what Angle and Wood say, there are quite a few people in Chapmantown—property owners, especially—who see the advantages of joining the city.

“I know a lot of people over here who want to be annexed,” Hooper said. “They believe they will get better police and fire protection from the city.”

Fire protection won’t change much, since both the city and county fire departments have stations nearby and already operate on a “boundary drop” mutual-aid agreement.

Policing would change considerably, however. The sheriff’s office divides the county in two parts, north and south, and assigns two to four deputies and a sergeant to each, Sheriff Kory Honea explained. They oversee a large area, so coverage is thinner than what could be provided by a municipal force, which has a proximity advantage and thus faster response times on average.

Chico Police Chief Kirk Trostle says he doesn’t know how many additional officers would be needed to cover Chapman/Mulberry following annexation. Offhand, though, he doesn’t agree with the county’s financial analysis, which estimates the addition of funding for one more full-time-equivalent position would be sufficient. More study is needed, Trostle says. In any event, he promises to do what he can with the resources he has to provide good levels of service throughout Chico.

Hooper isn’t worried that the neighborhood will lose its unique character if it’s part of the city. He points out that the city has accepted the Chapman-Mulberry Neighborhood Plan, which calls for maintaining its semi-rural nature. Besides, the city can’t afford to put in curbs, sidewalks, gutters and storm drains even if it wants to.

This map illustrates the unicorporated areas of Chapmantown and the Mulberry district.

Annexation and sewers will give landowners much more flexibility in developing their properties. Lots smaller than 1 acre, the current minimum for new parcels, will be allowed. People can put in swimming pools if they want. And, with sewer, they can add a garbage disposal.

Most important, perhaps, with annexation, residents of Chapman/Mulberry will be eligible to vote in city elections and serve on city boards and commissions.

The negotiated agreement the City Council considered during its Aug. 19 meeting—and will consider again on Oct. 21—was the product of meetings between two subcommittees, one of the City Council, the other of the commission.

The agreement is a compromise. In return for submitting annexation applications for both neighborhoods to LAFCo, the city will have five years before the annexations become effective—time for it to get its finances in order.

The agreement also provides a mechanism for after-the-fact approval of the 62 noncompliant sewer connections. The city will file a single comprehensive application with LAFCo and cooperate in resolving any related issues.

According to an agenda report written by Wolfe, the city’s community development director, the agreement will “reduce both the time and cost for property owners to connect, and thereby comply with the state order to abandon their septic systems.”

The alternative is piecemeal annexation, like that done with the Boucher St. Market. As Wolfe points out, however, “[A]nnexing the areas through multiple actions over an extended period of time would be inefficient, and more costly for area residents….”

Besides, if the city nixes the agreement, it very likely would face a LAFCo lawsuit seeking a writ of mandate compelling it to pay full costs for resolving the 62 unauthorized hookups.

As it is, costs to the city could be as much as $30,000—up to $20,000 for Chapman/Mulberry and up to $10,000 for the 62 unauthorized hookups—to cover LAFCo’s processing expenses. This is considerably less than LAFCo would seek via a lawsuit, however.

The agreement is written in the bloodless language of bureaucrats. It doesn’t ponder such things as sense of community, shared history and valued way of life. And it places the needs of the greater Chico community—for boundaries that make sense, for the efficient provision of services—ahead of the desire of many, perhaps most, of the residents of Chapman/Mulberry.

After decades of being treated like a poor stepchild, Chapman/Mulberry finds itself being pushed to join a city whose residents long have looked down on it. No wonder so many of them don’t trust the city. The rest of Chico, with the exception of Dolan and a few others, has done little to embrace these neighborhoods over the years.

But Chapmantown and the Mulberry district have a lot to offer the greater community: a deep and generous tolerance of diversity, strength in the face of adversity, a live-and-let-live attitude, and a love of neighborhood that is as great as anyone’s. That’s certainly something the rest of us can and should respect.