Valley’s Edge opponents face better odds with voters
Monday afternoon, opponents of Valley Edge gathered at the Hands sculpture outside city hall with three tote bins full of petitions to block development proposed — and approved — for 1,448 acres in southeast Chico.
This coalition, called Valley’s Edge Resistance, told assembled media, supporters and on-lookers about efforts to trigger a referendum, then brought the bins upstairs to Chico City Clerk Debbie Presson for an initial count. The Butte County ClerkRecorder’s office has the petitions now to verify the signatures.
Did the opponents gather enough? On each of two issues, they say they got around 8,600, and they need 5,800. Presson’s reported tally was closer to 8,500, but that’s still a good cushion.
Supporters of Valley’s Edge think not. Referendum organizers relied predominantly on volunteers, with a few professionals, to canvas Chicoans. Only unique signatures from residents count toward the total. The city clerk only tallied; the county clerk delves into the details.
Recent initiatives didn’t get this far. Signature drives to recall Mayor Andrew Coolidge and Councilor Sean Morgan, and another for a referendum against the county’s redistricting map, fell short. Valley’s Edge Resistance set a goal of 8,000 and — at least gross, if not net — hit that target.
We’ll know for sure in 30 days or so whether the proponents or opponents can celebrate. Either way, it’s consequential, because a special election may be the path with the best chance of blocking
Valley’s Edge as planned.
It’s not the only path — the city also faces litigation. Three environmental groups including Chico-based AquAlliance have challenged the City Council’s approval of the Valley’s Edge Specific Plan under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. With the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity on board, they bring a weight of experience — and record of legal actions — to the table.
They also bear a different burden: the burden of proof. Referendum organizers need to convince voters; litigants must convince a judge. Those arguing the city made an improper decision need to demonstrate that councilors misinterpreted the law and incorrectly certified the environmental impact report.
It’s one thing to assert that in a campaign; it’s another to do it in court, successfully.
The council’s approval includes what are called findings — determinations that support the decision. The complaint hits on these, ranging from greenhouse gas emissions, fire danger and water resources to aesthetics, public safety and traffic. Litigants have the onus to prove councilors wrong.
Take emergency escape routes as an example. City Fire Chief Steve Standridge told the council that the proposed 2,777 housing units on the 1,448-acre would not jeopardize evacuations from and near the site, which bounds Skyway and East 20th Street. That is his professional judgment. Whose expertise would trump his? That’s on plaintiffs to establish.
They might. Their attorneys are experienced. But city findings are the baseline, setting the bar.
The referendum organizers have another advantage: passion. Take away the active participants — most Chicoans don’t have skin in the game, so to speak. Who’s more likely to care enough to vote? Those who care the most about the outcome. I’d say the opponents concerned about detrimental effects from development see higher stakes than the average resident who may want to buy a house there in 10, 20, 40 years.
Whether Valley’s Edge opponents have the signatures, the county clerk will tell. (Whether they have legal merit, the judge will tell.) If they clear the threshold to reach the ballot, they’ll have cleared a high hurdle.