Development divide

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Residential construction underway in Chico includes an apartment complex along Highway 32 (bounded by Walnut, West Eighth and West Ninth streets).

James Gallagher and Randall Stone don’t agree on much when it comes to Assembly Bill 430. Titled the Camp Fire Housing Assistance Act of 2019, the bill would streamline approval of residential development in specified jurisdictions in the North State—primarily by circumventing mandates in the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, that open projects to a public-review process.

Gallagher, an assemblyman whose district encompasses most of Butte County, authored and propelled AB 430 through his house of the Legislature. It awaits a hearing in the Senate Housing Committee, potentially as early as June 18.

Stone, Chico’s mayor, has been one of AB 430’s most vocal critics. Since its introduction Feb. 7, he has raised concerns not only over CEQA but also the bill’s applicability to Chico and impact on affordability and local land-use decisions. At a special meeting May 10, he and other progressives on the City Council passed a motion requesting Chico’s removal.

Gallagher publicly pledged to do so. The version approved by the Assembly, 70-1, on May 20 lists Chico along with Biggs, Gridley, Orland and Oroville. Gallagher told the CN&R by phone Monday (June 3) that Chico will be removed next week among amendments made ahead of the committee hearing.

“That’s what I said I would do; I’m going to do it,” Gallagher said.

On this matter, he and Stone see eye to eye.

“The Senate committees are aware of our decision, and our formal position is [to] let communities decide for themselves,” Stone said.

Gallagher said he’ll “probably add on some other cities” to offset the loss of Chico. He didn’t identify them other than to say he’s “looking at the universe of cities that are close by the region that can potentially meet the housing demand that’s needed.” He commented online Tuesday about Yuba City’s City Council voting to be included in the legislation.

Along with the municipalities mentioned above, and Butte County, Gallagher has received general support for AB 430 from business, realty and building associations.

After the Camp Fire displaced tens of thousands of people, Chico’s population grew nearly 21 percent. Brendan Vieg, deputy director of the Community Development Department, told the City Council in a May 7 report that Chico added 577 housing units in 2017 (single- and multifamily), 555 in 2018, and “it’s expected that 2019 will be a record-setting year.” Developers have 5,300 units in the “near-term pipeline.”

Even if Chico were included in AB 430, the legislation wouldn’t affect those projects. Nor would it cover infill—development amid existing neighborhoods—because that’s categorically exempt from CEQA. Exempt per the bill’s language are properties in a flood plain, wetlands, very high fire hazard severity zone or zoning not already designated for residential use (see Restrictions also include a 50-acre size limit.

“It literally doesn’t allow any sprawl because it has to be within the boundaries or a special planning area of a city,” Gallagher said. “And you [as a developer] still have to get your permits. It just gets rid of the CEQA process that takes at least 18 months—and that’s if you don’t get sued by Richard Harriman.”

Harriman, a Chico attorney, represents environmental groups in legal actions statewide. Like Stone, he told the CN&R that CEQA fits into a broader issue he has with AB 430: civic participation in the development process. Projects that, under the bill, drop to the “ministerial” level of review without CEQA would receive approval or denial only in City Hall offices, not at public meetings of the Planning Commission or City Council.

Moreover, both Stone and Harriman said, provisions of the bill—if enacted as law—could linger decades past AB 430’s expiration date of Jan. 1, 2026. Development agreements that set conditions for, say, subdivisions often run 20 years to span the build-out of a project; those authorized under AB 430 would bypass CEQA. Turning a large project into several small projects, compliant with AB 430, could be accomplished by lot splits.

“There’s a million different ways to usurp this,” Stone said.