Who owns southeast Chico?

Acres upon acres of vacant land are looking more attractive as the city grows

Illustration By Carey Wilson

Smart speculators: Consultant Jim Mann explained how his developer clients came to own their southeast Chico land. Chico State graduate George Schmidbauer married into it; Tom Fogarty hooked up with a pair who had owned land there for 30 years; and Dan Drake was just “very far-sighted” and bought property in the mid 1980s.

A walk along Bruce Road, from The Skyway north to Highway 32, makes the vacant fields of summer-scorched grasses seem like a vast, endless expanse.

In reality, this area of southeast Chico is one of only a few precious pockets of property available for development in the city. And, with the city’s General Plan anticipating 40,000 more people in coming years, Chico needs every piece of land it can get.

But the growing community must balance its lust for land with the needs of several wetlands species such as endangered Butte County meadowfoam and fairy shrimp, whose limited homelands include those same spots along Bruce Road.

“When that area was designated for growth in the General Plan [in 1993-94], there was recognition that there were environmental constraints in that area,” acknowledged Tom Hayes, a senior planner with the city of Chico. But with so few available parcels and a reluctance to trade agricultural land near Highway 99 for urban sprawl, a shaky balance was struck between environmental corridors and residential development. City maps have earmarked that area as “vacant residential land” zoned for building homes.

The need for developable land has been made even clearer during the past three years with the planning for Chico’s fourth high school.

“We looked at anything that was 40 acres or larger,” said Mike Weissenborn, facilities planner for the Chico Unified School District, referring to the minimum size usually allowed for a high school. “There’s no easy spot.”

The CUSD Board of Trustees, following the recommendation of a committee of community members, decided the new school should go where the growth is: in south Chico. The board settled on property east of Bruce Road between The Skyway and East 20th Street owned by the Schmidbauer family of Eureka and later offered to the district at $60,000 an acre. (Actually, the committee first picked Schmidbauer-owned land on the west side of Bruce Road, but, nudged by the property owner, trustees agreed to the east side, which turned out to be more environmentally constrained.)

But as the high school, originally slated for completion in fall 2002, has been delayed until at least 2006, the CUSD’s second-, third- and even fourth- and fifth-choice sites resurfaced.

Now, the district has commissioned an objective look via an environmental-impact report that will examine equally not only the favored site, but also other property owned by the Schmidbauers, plus a parcel owned by Enloe Health System.

Weissenborn said that in the time since the district looked at more than a dozen properties in 1998, “several of the pieces that were on our wish list to be considered are being developed.” Southeast Chico, he said, is the only option. “If not there, where?” he asked.

Flash back to the early 1980s, when southeast Chico looked like little more than weed-filled fields, with a few cattle grazing here and there.

Hayes remembers the New World project along Notre Dame Boulevard as the first major development in southeast Chico, in the early 1970s. After some false starts, California Park was developed, too. Later came Little Chico Creek Estates.

A few savvy investors, taking a cue from the city’s creation of a sewer assessment district where it hoped new houses would go and the county supervisors’ establishment of the Greenline limiting growth onto agricultural lands to the west of town, had bought up hundreds of acres of land in southeast Chico, including along Bruce Road, by the mid-1980s. Developments sprang up.

“All of a sudden, I guess the land values and the cost for extending services became [such] that it penciled out … almost overnight,” Hayes said.

Jim Mann, a consultant representing several of the developers who own property in southeast Chico, acknowledged buying land there was always somewhat of a gamble, due both to environmental rules and a politically “anti-growth faction” in Chico. “[The developers] really thought it would be much easier [to build on] than it has turned out to be. … Right now, these properties, without a map on them, really aren’t worth that much money.”

But overall, the owners’ foresight seems to have paid off.

Tom Fogarty, a Yuba City developer who has built many homes in Chico, and Bay Area investors by the names of Rosellini and Martin have joined up to propose the Oak Valley subdivision on 43 acres of about 350 acres the parties own beyond the Humboldt Burn Dump stretching up Highway 32.

Chico developer Dan Drake and his business partner Ed Simmons have submitted a tentative map for the Eastgate Ranch subdivision. If approved, it would bring hundreds of homes to Bruce Road near Humboldt.

Enloe Health System’s goal in acquiring land in the area was initially less profit-motivated. The nonprofit hospital bought most of its about-240 acres along Bruce Road in 1983, “with a vision of expansion,” explained Linda Tucker, Enloe’s public-relations coordinator, relaying a perspective provided by Chief Executive Officer Phil Wolfe.

Tucker said the hospital’s board of directors decided as early as 1990 that it would be more cost-effective to drop its idea of building a $300 million acute-care hospital between Humboldt Road and 20th Street and instead stay centered on The Esplanade. (But as recently as 1997, Enloe included the center on a detailed development agreement with the city, so players like the CUSD assumed it was still a go.)

Now, Tucker said, “we don’t really have a plan for that property,” other than to someday have it developed at a profit.

It’s likely Enloe’s land holdings will become more only coveted as time goes on. In fact, when school district officials counter pessimists by asking where else but on the Schmidbauer site could a high school be built, the answer is often a quick “the Enloe site.”

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said the south end of the Enloe property looks like the most attractive spot for a school in that part of Chico.

“It’s almost perfectly their 50 acres,” she said.

But Enloe’s intentions for the land are just as pure, insists Tucker, as the hospital is tasked with providing affordable, quality health care to area residents. In order to carry out that mission, she relayed, the hospital has a duty not to let the land go for less than its fair market value.

Tucker said Enloe would be willing to sell the CUSD the northern portion of its property, nearest Humboldt Road. (A 73-acre chunk has been assessed for tax purposes at $1.76 million.) But with power lines that would have to be moved, historic rock walls, plus a 30-acre conservation easement, the CUSD considers it unable to be developed. “It’s problematic. It’s not an approvable site,” Weissenborn said.

Instead, the school district has set its sights—albeit its alternate sights—south of Little Chico Creek, on 50 of the 165 Enloe-owned acres that have few environmental constraints and are considered nearly ready to develop. That’s the site that dropped out of the running early in the selection process, with the sticking point being Enloe’s unwillingness to sell. Enloe representatives wouldn’t say what the hospital considers fair market value for the land. According to Butte County assessor’s records, 157 of those acres total $4.6 million in taxable value.

Weissenborn sees how the Enloe site could look “enticing” to outsiders and said the district has been corresponding with Enloe officials about its properties. “They’re not interested at all in selling [the southern parcel] to us,” he reiterated. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been focusing on the site where we have a willing seller.”

Still, he said of Enloe, “it may just be if they have an infusion of cash from the district and we’re doing it without impacting their project plans. … We may find that we don’t have unwilling sellers.”

Mann said the landowners, not to mention the school district, are annoyed at federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, whose representatives say something different each time they meet up with folks hoping to build.

The issue has become increasingly political, as Congressman Wally Herger, R-Marysville, has lobbied top officials to speed along the process for the high school and residential development the Schmidbauers applied for along with it.

The CUSD-commissioned EIR must objectively settle on the “least environmentally damaging practical alternative” for the high school, Weissenborn said.

Enloe’s representatives feel it’s too soon and too speculative to talk about a high school on its southernmost site.

Pretty much everywhere else that’s undeveloped along Bruce Road hosts meadowfoam populations that federal agencies wouldn’t want to see destroyed, Vlamis said.

Mann said, “This land has zoning and should be allowed to develop. I can’t understand why anybody would not like to support shelter—and affordable shelter.”

Hayes, the planner, pictures a great deal of growth taking place in southeast Chico during the next five or 10 years.

“The need is there, obviously, to develop,” he said. “The infrastructure is there.”

Hayes believes there’s nothing about southeast Chico land—even the controversial, contaminated Humboldt Burn Dump—that makes it impossible to develop; it will just take longer and require more wetlands preserves.

“We totally anticipate that they will develop over time," he said.