Environmental challenges huge for south Chico project
CHICO — For more than three hours, the Chico Planning Commission heard reasons why the StoneGate project shouldn’t move forward, focusing on environmental concerns.
It also heard from a handful of speakers in favor of Epick Homes’ proposed development in southeast Chico, pointing out Chico’s dire need for new housing.
In the end, the Planning Commission on Thursday recommended all the necessary steps to move it along to the City Council, which will likely start its discussion on Sept. 18.
According to Chico senior planner Mike Sawley, the city’s point person for StoneGate, the city staff did its best to answer all the questions that have popped up since the process started. The first application went to the city in 2015. The draft environmental impact report began circulation in April 2018.
"We’ve solicited comments for a couple of years. The comments have overlapped the same ground, so we looked harder at it and convinced the applicant to look closer and give more details," Sawley said Friday morning.
All that resulted in the plan before the city.
The project calls for 423 units on 81 acres of single-family residential, 13.4 acres of multi-family residential, 36.6 acres of commercial, three small parks, public right-of-way and stormwater retention area. It is on 313 acres south of East 20th Street, and on both sides of Bruce Road. In the vicinity is the 50 acres on the west side of Bruce owned by Chico Unified School District.
Like the commission, the council will host one or more public hearings and make comments on all those issues again.
Environmental concerns were most mentioned by the public, ranging from Butte County meadowfoam to greenhouse gases.
Butte County meadowfoam
At the top of the concerns list is the property’s abundance of endangered Butte County meadowfoam, which is found only in Butte County, and this south Chico property is among the largest populations.
Sawley explains its importance: "Species diversity in general is important. There are unknown solutions (in plants) to diseases that we’re beginning to understand. We don’t know which ones they’re in. If we lose that diversity, the opportunity might not be there anymore."
One of the property’s largest populations of meadowfoam is west of Potter Road, near Skyway. It’s a place where Epick proposed the largest, most expensive lots for homes. Sawley said after a long discussion, Epick "was convinced they could live without those."
Epick founder Pete Giampaoli told this publication earlier that the removal of those lots cost the company "millions of dollars."
"It was the second best cluster (of meadowfoam) on the property," Sawley said.
Epick Homes will be required to encourage meadowfoam on site, or mitigate it by buying credits or buying property on which meadowfoam already exists.
The large population on the east side will be part of the 136 acres of preserve, which when added to the roughly 15 acres of existing city-owned meadowfoam preserve near East 20th Street. That will produce a large swath of protected open space.
Sawley explained the reproduction success of Butte County meadowfoam is low, and Epick may be required to "go find a piece of property, enter into an option to buy the property, post the money to allow the purchase and prove it to the city."
"They could harvest (seeds) for years and sprinkle them over the preserve. They might have to inoculate the area for years."
Another planting option could be the Sycamore Creek Conservation Area in north Chico.
Epick will also have to satisfy the state and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which still have to issue permits, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The creation of greenhouse gases, which raise climate temperature, was another environmental issue for the project. While the environmental documentation indicated it couldn’t be mitigated, Epick representative Scott Birkey told the commission that Epick "has to mitigate it to the largest extent possible. There are mitigation measures incorporated in the plan."
He counted measures such as charging outlets for electric cars, solar shading by trees — which are nonexistent on the property — along with rooftop solar and other measures.
Local environmental advocate Mark Stemen offered several suggestions to improve the project including: Eliminate cul-de-sacs, require variable house sizes and intermix housing types rather than keeping them segmented, and require homes to be all-electric.
Several speakers favoring the project mentioned the supply of housing is a problem in Chico, an issue reiterated by the city’s Land Absorption Plan, which is on the city’s website
The plan’s executive summary notes that Chico’s projected growth demands are between 7,300 and 12,000 housing units through 2035.
It also notes there are current projects "in the pipeline" accounting for about 5,000 units — 3,249 single-family homes and 2,013 multi-family units. Those latter estimates include housing proposed by both Meriam Park and StoneGate, among others.
Stating opposition to the project or the EIR’s adequacy were representatives of Butte Environmental Council, AltaCal Audubon Society and recognized environmental advocates such as Stemen and John Merz, the latter of whom suggested lower-income housing be brought into the mix.
Many, such as Natalie Carter of BEC, encouraged the city to delay the project and require more studies on the project’s impact, including the protected species and property hydrology.
Planning Commissioner Lupita Arim-Law agreed about the studies and discussion of the project, but did support the affiliated General Plan amendment, and rezoning adopted Thursday night.
She noted there was "a split" in the community that she hoped could be eased with more conversation about the project, and noted that the concessions the developer made "were phenomenal" regarding the removal of the Potter Road vicinity lots.
Laura Urseny | Business editor
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