Becky Trout

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October 4, 2004
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For Conklin, North Star House is a legacy and political liability

This is the first of The Union's two-part, in-depth look at former county Supervisor Bruce Conklin's role in the North Star House restoration, which he helped finance as a politician and later was paid to oversee.

When Bruce Conklin first saw the North Star House, it was difficult to appreciate the mansion's neglected architectural beauty. Seeking votes for his 1998 campaign, he instead found fierce pit bulls that kept him from even opening the car door.

Four years later and in the last days of his time as a Nevada County supervisor, Conklin brokered a deal to revive the dilapidated treasure using money donated to the county. Three months later, he was in charge of the restoration project.

Now, Conklin is making another try for the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and his work with the house has returned to the forefront, giving ammunition to his political opponents and often overshadowing his campaign effort.

Scrutiny of Conklin's involvement with the North Star House has revealed that:

• As a county supervisor, Conklin championed using county money to restore the house, convincing his colleagues to give the Nevada County Land Trust $508,000.

• Three months later, Conklin was hired by the Land Trust as a project manager - a position he first outlined in a memo as a supervisor - and was subsequently paid $66,615 for 15 months of work.

• Conklin's longtime friend Lawrence Black received $182,001 to replace the house's roof and perform other construction work.

• Conklin's brother-in-law Jim Longnecker was retained as the North Star House caretaker, providing him with a free place to live.

As these points have arisen in recent weeks, they have not gone unnoticed by his critics.

"There's plenty of information that leads one to believe that it may not have been aboveboard," said Nevada County Planning Commissioner John Spencer, who is currently running against Conklin for District 3 supervisor.

Conklin's other opponent, Grass Valley City Councilwoman Linda Stevens, agrees, "There is an appearance of a conflict of interest."

But Conklin and Land Trust leaders, who plan to hold a news conference today to defend their decisions, insist they acted ethically.

"The Land Trust absolutely did nothing wrong," Land Trust President Andy Cassano wrote in a guest column in The Union.

"If anything, it was very brave of them to go out on a limb and hire me," Conklin said.

But in order to investigate what she called "a very wrong decision to make on the part of the Land Trust," Supervisor Sue Horne today will seek to launch a county probe into the North Star House project.

A piece of historic gold

After a school for troubled youths failed and left the North Star House vacant in the mid-1980s, no one seemed to want the dilapidated building.

Designed by acclaimed architect Julia Morgan and built in 1905 for the North Star Mine manager, the 11,000-square-foot estate was far past its glory. It was scarred with crude graffiti, smashed windows and tacky additions. Owning it, much less restoring it, would require a colossal commitment of time and money.

A spokesman for Terra Alta Development, which owned the house from the mid-1980s until April 2002, declined to comment on the house for this story.

But the community hadn't completely forgotten the house.

In the mid-1990s, Penelope Curtis founded the Julia Morgan Conservancy, hoping to restore the house. Also involved with the Nevada County Land Trust, Curtis worked with Land Trust Executive Director Cheryl Belcher to find money for a restoration project.

Their quest became a Catch-22, Belcher said. Grant providers were leery of giving money to a group that didn't own the house, forcing the Land Trust to abandon its efforts.

"We were aware of the house, aware of its importance," Belcher said. "But with no money, there was just no way."

And the house continued to decay.

After his first pit bull-plagued experience, Conklin didn't encounter the home again until 2000. That year, when he brought together more than a dozen community groups in the Historic Buildings Alliance, he first came to know the house as a historic treasure.

"I became fascinated with it," Conklin said.

Restoring the home became the top goal of the alliance, but owners Terra Alta Development had little interest in declaring it a historic building.

A year passed and a different developer, Sandy Sanderson, obtained a binding contract on the property.

In November 2002, Sanderson called Conklin, asking to discuss the North Star House, Conklin said. The two men sat down and Sanderson revealed he hoped to donate the house to a local, public organization, Conklin said.

That had already been tried, however. The county didn't want the building, Conklin said, and Grass Valley officials were adamantly opposed to acquiring the house.

Conklin said he suggested that Sanderson form a nonprofit, but the Oregon developer wasn't interested.

After the meeting, Conklin scouted out possible recipients of the historic house - with no leads until Dec. 3.

An unexpected windfall

No one wanted the dilapidated house without a lot of money to take care of it.

Enter the Dryden Wilson bequest - an $887,738 gift from a frugal, blue-collar Auburn resident who had worked in Grass Valley and loved open space.

When he died in March 2000, the former Pacific Gas & Electric employee left Placer and Nevada counties $1.8 million.

Nevada County's share was tied up in legal wrangling for more than two years - the county did not officially accept the gift until May 28, 2002.

Unlike other county funds, the Wilson bequest was strings-free, only restricted by the stated desire of its donor, "who very much wanted to help in saving open space and allow for land to be used for the benefit and enjoyment of the public rather than allowing it all to turn into subdivisions or sprawling suburbs," according to a letter accompanying the check.

Soon after accepting the gift, the supervisors voted to use $111,000 of it to pay for Bear River Park and Recreation and San Juan Ridge and Nisenan special elections.

Then, in late September, the board set out to discuss divvying up the money.

At the time, Conklin spoke in favor of using the money for a south county skate park and parkland at the Loma Rica Ranch, while Supervisor Barbara Green supported the Nevada County and the Truckee-Donner land trusts.

The supervisors did not revisit the bequest until Dec. 3, a month after a heated election that toppled the left-leaning Board of Supervisors and gave conservatives a majority.

Robin Sutherland had bested Izzy Martin in District 4, and Drew Bedwell and Conklin remained locked in a recount race for District 3.

The four aligned supervisors - Conklin, Martin, Green and Peter Van Zant - feared the new board would use Wilson's bequest for something other than open space, which was translated by the supervisors to mean anything related to recreation.

They had reason for concern: Bedwell had spoken of the need for softball fields and mental health services, while Sutherland had often discussed the importance of roads.

The money conundrum

Going into the fateful Dec. 3 meeting, the five supervisors held before them a memo signed by Conklin a day earlier. Conklin denies writing the memo, saying it was probably written by county staff.

The memo proposed using $200,000 of the Wilson bequest to employ someone to kick off the restoration of the North Star House. The contractor would be responsible for securing the house, researching restoration, and fund- raising.

The memo made no mention of the Nevada County Land Trust.

In addition to Conklin's memo, the supervisors had received a slew of funding requests since their September meeting. The Land Trust had joined in, asking for $100,000 to match money for ranch conservation, Belcher said.

As Dec. 3 dawned, the bequest was already down to $776,000 - $111,000 had been previously set aside for the park district elections.

Conklin began the meeting by asking to restore the Wilson bequest to $888,000, using county reserves to pay for the park elections.

Following lengthy discussion and protest from Supervisor Sue Horne, his effort failed - at least for the time being.

After he proposed using the entire Wilson bequest for the Nevada County and Truckee-Donner land trusts to "acquire significant park and/or recreation land," Conklin asked to recess for lunch.

His fellow supervisors, however, also had ideas for the money and discussed using money for a North San Juan activity center, Truckee Parks and Recreation District, Western Gateway Park, Nevada City and Grass Valley.

A crowded lunch

When the board finally recessed, Conklin went for lunch at the nearby Northridge restaurant, where he joined Belcher, Green, Van Zant and Nevada City Planning Commissioner Laurie Oberholzer, among others. Van Zant reportedly sat at a different table to avoid an open-meeting law violation.

There, Conklin offered the Land Trust the North Star House.

"They gave us a sum," Belcher said.

Offered $508,000, she tentatively accepted, pending discussion with the nonprofit's board of directors.

"We discussed the project ... conservation, project tours (as well as) normal everyday life stuff," Belcher said.

Conklin did not ask for a job with the restoration, nor was he offered one, Belcher said.

"We never discussed anything improper," she said.

The deal is done

The lunch party returned to the Rood Administrative Center, ready to negotiate.

Right away, Martin repeated Conklin's motion to return the $111,000 diverted to park elections to the Wilson bequest. This time it passed, on a 4-1 vote with Horne protesting.

Seconds later, Conklin proposed giving the Land Trust $508,000 for the North Star House project and Loma Rica Ranch.

The same voting bloc approved his plan. To finalize the agreement before Martin and Conklin left office, the supervisors called for a Christmas Eve meeting, one that Horne made known she could not attend.

Also on Dec. 3, the day of the lunch and initial North Star House vote, Conklin learned the election tally had been finalized - Bedwell had beat him.

Two weeks later, the board reconvened and officially doled out the Dryden Wilson bequest.

The Nevada County Land Trust left with $508,000, plus $50,000 to hold in safekeeping for the Western Gateway Regional Park District.

As the New Year arrived, the Land Trust - until then focused on preserving open space - found itself tasked with the complex and costly restoration of a community landmark.

They just needed someone to run the show.

Bruce Conklin just happened to be available for a job.

Coming Wednesday: The apolitical Land Trust wades into a quagmire as a surprise resignation again piques Conklin's political ambitions.


Timeline: Dates behind the debate

March 18, 2000 - Dryden Wilson, a Placer County PG&E employee, dies, leaving $1.8 million to Nevada and Placer counties with no requirements, only requesting the money be used for recreation.

2000 - Nevada County Supervisor Bruce Conklin forms Historic Buildings Alliance, an affiliation of local nonprofit organizations. Saving the historic North Star House becomes its first goal.

May 28, 2002 - Board of Supervisors receives $887,738 from Wilson estate.

Sept. 24, 2002 - Board of Supervisors discusses Wilson money. Supervisor Conklin says he supports a South County skate park and park space at Loma Rica Ranch. Supervisor Barbara Green champions Nevada County and Truckee-Donner land trusts.

Nov. 27, 2002 - Nevada County Land Trust sends a letter to the Board of Supervisors asking for $100,000 from the Wilson bequest for ranch conservation.

Dec. 2, 2002 - In a memo, Conklin requests $200,000 from the Wilson bequest be made available to kick off the North Star House restoration. He outlines the possible project manager job in the memo.

Dec. 3, 2002 - 9:10 - 11:45 a.m.: Supervisors discuss Wilson bequest. Conklin suggests using the entire bequest to contract with the two land trusts to acquire significant park and recreation lands.

Dec. 3, 2002 - 12 - 1:30 p.m.: At a lunch at the Northridge restaurant in Nevada City, Conklin works out a proposal through discussion with Green, Land Trust Executive Director Cheryl Belcher, Nevada City Planning Commissioner Laurie Oberholzer, Supervisor Peter Van Zant and others.

Dec. 3, 2002 - (Time unclear) Final election results show Conklin has lost his seat to Drew Bedwell by 13 votes.

Dec. 3, 2002 - 1:30 p.m.: Conklin makes motion to give $508,000 to Land Trust - $250,000 to be used for North Star House "to secure the house, (write) grant applications, hiring people to oversee the house to see that it was restored for public use." Conklin asks board to use his Dec. 2 memo as a guideline.

Dec. 9, 2002 - Conklin files for election recount.

Dec. 17, 2002 - Land Trust Board OKs acquiring North Star House; Belcher begins working on contract.

Dec. 18, 2002 - Recount over; Bedwell declared winner by 19 votes.

Dec. 24, 2002 - On Christmas Eve, Board of Supervisors gives Land Trust $508,000 to use for North Star House and Loma Rica Ranch.

Jan 3, 2003 - Land Trust writes a request for proposals for Wilson bequest project manager.

March 2003 - Conklin hired to manage North Star House.

April 2003 - Developer Sandy Sanderson officially gets ownership of North Star House from Terra Alta Development.

May-June 2003 - Land Trust hires contractor Lawrence Black, an old friend of Conklin's, to reroof North Star House.

August 2003 - Land Trust obtains permission from Sanderson to work on the house.

December 2003 - Land Trust officially acquires house from Sanderson.

May 25, 2004 -Board of Supervisors gives $50,000 of state recreation funds to Land Trust for use for architectural drawings. Land Trust later is disqualified from getting the money because it has no link to public property, Land Trust Treasurer Ron Mathis says.

June 2, 2004 - Bedwell resigns as supervisor after a Hodgkin's disease diagnosis.

Late June 2004 - Conklin resigns as project manager to run for the unexpected opening on the Board of Supervisors.

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The Union Updated Oct 5, 2004 12:10PM Published Oct 4, 2004 12:00AM Copyright 2004 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.