Michelle Rindels
Staff Writer

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March 19, 2010
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Northwest of Broad St., trails, solar farm are just the start

Don't expect a Boeing 747 to fly into the old Nevada City airport any time soon - landing gear hasn't touched the strip in decades, and many newer residents don't know it exists.

But what was once a sub-par tarmac for small airplanes could soon be a state-of-the-art solar farm to raise revenue for Nevada City. The proposal also is drawing new attention to the wooded areas just northwest of downtown including the Cement Hill and Hirschman's Pond areas.

Neighbors are anxious for the city to snap up an adjoining, federally-owned property that, according to local lore, includes the site of the last roundhouse and ranchero once owned by the Maidu. A trail project is underway near Hirschman's Pond, a former hydraulic mining site behind the Rood Center.

Together, the projects could piece together a wooded greenbelt rich with local history.

The newest crop in Nevada City could be electricity if the proposed solar farm gets funding. City officials are waiting to hear from the California Energy Commission about a grant application they submitted Feb. 9.

More than simply an array of solar panels set up on the hilltop airport property, the grant proposes what is being called the Sierra Nevada Solar Research Field.

A monitoring system would measure the efficiency of the panels under various weather conditions and sun positions, City Manager Gene Albaugh said.

"That was a concept we thought that would give us something more creative than just going for solar panels," Albaugh said - an angle suggested by Martin Webb, owner of Plan It Solar in Penn Valley. Webb and Shawn Garvey, of the Grant Farm in Nevada City, also worked on the proposal.

Such research also is an underdeveloped niche of the solar energy industry, he added.

A solar farm would cost an estimated $6.5 million, while the grant asks for about $2.5 million. If the city wins the grant, officials would need to find matching funds to complete the project, or they might partner with a larger firm, such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Chevron Energy or Honeywell.

For now, activity at the tree-framed airport is largely limited to NID's heavy equipment and trucks milling around a fenced-in pipe storage area - plus locals who use the land informally for paintball matches and riding their off-highway vehicles.

A 2-mile-long trail will soon weave through land once wracked by hydraulic mining.

City officials will be calling for bids in about two weeks for the first phase of a trail project funded by a federal grant, City Engineer Bill Falconi said. Phase one is a 1.5-mile stretch of trail leading from the pond to the Willo, the popular steakhouse on Highway 49.

Phase two - a half-mile stretch of unpaved trail running from the Rood Administrative Center to the pond and accessible to people with disabilities - will go out to bid a few weeks later.

The property itself is a relic from the city's early years.

Hirschman's Pond got its name a pair of brothers who owned a cigar shop in Nevada City before buying into a strip mining venture on the property in the mid 1860s, according to research by Nevada County historian Bob Wyckoff.

Hydraulic monitors blasted powerful streams of water onto the hillside, washing rocks and dirt through tunnels with filters that caught gold.

It's also the location of the famed Lone Pine, a remnant of hillside that was spared by the water cannons and which supported a single pine tree for decades.

Hydraulic mining was banned in 1884 because the runoff was ruining farms in the Sacramento Valley.

By that time, what was once a gently sloping hill had been blasted away, leaving a sheer cliff and exposing the bedrock. When a drainage tunnel collapsed years later, the mining site filled with water from a spring and is now dubbed Hirschman's Pond.

"That's what makes it such a nice place - the history," said Nevada City Parks and Recreation Supervisor Dawn Zydonis. "You can just sense it."

After the city accepted a $200,000 federal Recreational Trails Program grant in 2008, city parks and recreation personnel conducted a historical survey of the property and developed a vision for the trail and park space, which City Council members reviewed at their March 10 meeting.

The goal is to create a quiet, minimally-developed park. Council members discouraged a bike rack and bathrooms on the property, emphasizing they wanted a space for passive recreation rather than a high-traffic destination park.

Such a park fits in with Nevada City's general plan, drafted in 1985.

"It's about having open space, and wanting to keep the area around the city green," Zydonis said.

Adjacent to the airport property is 33 acres owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

For at least one resident of the greater Cement Hill neighborhood, an ideal world would include city ownership of the land that includes rock walls, 100-year-old fruit trees planted by early settlers and acres of pristine wetlands.

The BLM land bridges the old airport and the Hirschman's Pond property, and it "has historic and biological amenities equal to none in our area" according to a letter from Greater Cement Hill Neighborhood Association member Eileen Jorgensen.

"It includes proximity to the last roundhouse and ranchero of the local Maidu, (and) one of the county's oldest and most pastoral (Nevada Irrigation District) ditches," the letter continues.

Residents from the association presented the idea to the council in February. It's not the first time they've lobbied the city to adopt the strip of land, but efforts over the past 10 years have turned up fruitless.

City staff must formally apply to acquire the 33 acres adjacent to the airport, Falconi said. He expected it would take the city at least a year to complete the application.

The land "helps to form the green wooded enclosure that is described in Nevada City's general plan," Jorgensen wrote. "These lands are also historically and biologically important to the city and its history."

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Maidu group living here. It should have said "Nisenan Maidu."

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The Union Updated Mar 19, 2010 05:47PM Published Mar 19, 2010 02:16AM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.