Small-town serenity sets Biggs apart in Northern California ‘housing catastrophe’

Rural towns may offer hope for California residents fleeing cities, housing shortages

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BIGGS — Running on its own water and electricity, with walnut orchards surrounding the highway and the Sutter Buttes in the distance, the city of Biggs feels like a rarity of old-fashioned rural living. It’s hard to believe that the community is just an hour from the traffic and noise of Sacramento.

In fact, one might say, while driving on exceptionally quiet roads and gazing at Victorian homes and walnut trees, that it’s a piece of the classic American dream still happening on Californian soil. Nestled between Chico and Sacramento, the little town has yet to see its population approach 2,500. Many families here work in agriculture, and kids still walk to school. There’s just one restaurant, Big Momma’s Number 1 BBQ.

  • A vacant bulding, previously a hotel, sits downtown on Tuesday in Biggs. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

  • Biggs City Manager Mark Sorenson goes over developement plans in his office on Tuesday in Biggs. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

  • Tractors sit in a field on the outskirts of town Tuesday in Biggs. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

  • A rare new single-family home is seen Tuesday in Biggs. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

  • The SunWest Milling facility, Biggs’ largest employer, is seen Tuesday in Biggs. (Matt Bates — Enterprise-Record)

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This idyll and slower pace is exactly what the citizens of Biggs want to preserve, and what they believe is part of its appeal for folks in the north state who want to escape big-city life.

Waiting for new neighbors

Biggs’ population hasn’t increased as much as it did after the Camp Fire in years. The city has typically been estimated at just over 1,900 for several years, but the Camp Fire caused an estimated 8 percent increase, leading to zero vacancy in the city.

For those in charge, it’s both a sign of potential further growth, and a cause for concern.

The city lot map in Biggs makes it clear that the room for growth exists all around, particularly in how many lots are marked for commercial interest. A city with just one market and a small convenience store owned by the same family, it’s clearly in great need of more businesses.

In fact, many buildings with businesses in them already are likely up for sale, according to the new mayor, Nathan Wilkinson. Residents need to drive to Gridley, or another 10 minutes to Oroville, for more shopping options.

But business follows housing, not the other way around, city manager Mark Sorenson says. And Biggs is waiting for more opportunity to arise in building.

Occasional spikes in housing development have mainly happened with smaller buyers and, thanks to CHIP, particularly after the Great Recession of 2008 led to the shelving and selling of many plans.

Some development has still gone through since those years. For example, in 2016, North Biggs Estates successfully put in 53 units of low-income entry-level housing.

Other projects nearly destroyed by the recession were not so lucky. Sorenson pointed to another project from 2006, of 1,000 units, including entry-level, second-level housing and retail spaces, that is now on the market. The same happened to several other developments.

To soften the burden, self-help housing has popped up in other parts of town, Sorenson said, but it isn’t all that the city wants, as there’s plenty of entry-level housing spread out.

Benefits of small-town living

The tight-knit, peaceful atmosphere is what appeals to many, and that goes for the schools, too. Interestingly, the town and school district are small enough (graduating around 40 kids a year) that residents often choose between Biggs High School and Richvale High School, which is even smaller, for their kids, Sorenson said.

Clearly, even those from out of town often find what they’re looking for here. Wilkinson is from Corning and said he moved to Biggs for the cost difference, and now lives in a house built in the 1890s.

Sorenson also came to Biggs after starting in Chico, and has reached his seventh year in his position with the city after taking over from Peter Carr (now city manager of Orland). He has personal interest in providing more homes with Camp Fire survivors still looking for options as his daughter lost her Paradise home in the fire.

Both expressed their hopes for new residents who want to escape the struggles of larger cities, deepening fire fears and safety concerns as well. The town has fully-staffed police and fire departments, and Wilkinson claims that the average response time for an emergency anywhere in town is 48 seconds.

Higher transparency of officials may also be a draw. City officials who all know each other in such a small community are under a much, much smaller lens, Wilkinson said.

Planning for progress

Another attractive aspect of Biggs is how it prioritizes being free from control of water and electricity companies.

The city of Biggs is in control of its own water table and also takes pride in its freedom from PG&E under Biggs Electric. Water is in such good supply, in fact, that underground work for building projects used to be an issue even during the drought, Sorenson said.

In fact, the city is now putting a project that has been in the works for “10 years,” Sorenson said, to help increase capacity of the entire system. A new water project by the public works department across from the Sun West rice mill is finally going through a major upgrade.

The $9 million project, which broke ground in May, will help better dispose of wastewater, using storage ponds and alfalfa to make the town’s water supply safer and more green. It is hoped that the project will improve the capacity of the town and help pursue a development of about 1,000 units, Sorenson said.

“We are also pursuing federal and state grants to improve our existing system, which won’t change our entire capacity but it will improve the lack of I-9 infiltrates we’re getting,” Wilkinson said. “So it just makes the system we have more efficient and that much more robust.”

Providing new options for families

As Biggs looks to the future, its administrator hopes that new neighbors will be drawn to its pocket of quiet and peaceful living, at a time when real estate problems are real and very worrying for all.

Sorenson and Wilkinson both agreed that at the consumer market rate, it’s probably approximately $100,000 less for a finished home in Biggs than in Chico.

“The time risk is also what makes it risky for a lot of the developers,” Wilkinson said, of the time it takes to build in Chico as compared to Biggs.

Sorenson said that the longest part of the process for building might be the environmental review, which he estimates as about six months on average — and that’s in comparison to Chico’s review process, which can take many months or years to complete.

Yet builders are willing to wait in order to make profits in Chico.

Building more CHIP homes isn’t what the planners in Biggs are hoping for, anyway. The most recently finished standard home was completed in December, and now houses a Camp Fire victim. Sorenson points to this as an example of new housing’s importance, with Biggs’ relatively close location to the rest of Butte County.

“We got several examples of this where someone built in a vacant lot,” he said. There are plenty of examples of this in Biggs, where it seems more common for empty lots to be snatched up and developed, as compared to a developer buying larger lots of land with the intention to build a subdivision.

The most recent interest Sorenson has seen is in one area of nearly 20 acres, where the potential buyer (whose name cannot be disclosed yet) may place a development of possibly over 50 units.

“We lowered the minimum lot size requirements and minimum square footage requirements, to make things more economical and enhance some more opportunities for growth,” Wilkinson added.

But, much more interest is needed to provide more space for potential residents.

“We were already in a housing crisis before the Camp Fire,” he said. “Now it’s more like a housing catastrophe.”

New realities for rural Californians

Sorenson hopes that as people who have to leave Paradise are hoping to find a similar place to live, they can look to small communities like Biggs for the same kind of life — privacy and affordability.

A major problem might be employment — the main sources of employment are agricultural, at the heavily-involved Sun West mill, and walnut orchards and in the school district.

But the commute isn’t significant, Wilkinson said. Sacramento is only an hour away — and in other parts of the state like Los Angeles, commuters might spend over two hours a day in traffic in order to live in slightly cheaper suburb developments away from metropolitan areas.

The trade-off in Biggs may not be living by the beach, but the chance to own a nice home in a quiet, safer rural community.

“While it feels like you’re detached from things, you’re actually not, which is really unique,” Wilkinson said.

The ultimate resort for some people, as long as they live in California, may be in towns like Biggs — quiet small towns for those who want a more laid-back place to live and raise a family.

The possibility for this kind of life is getting less and less possible in California, as anyone who has lived near a recent wildfire knows. And the rural draw may prove to be a boon for this quiet, farm-friendly community in the valley. Time will tell if the statewide housing crisis leads to growth in more towns like Biggs in the near future.

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