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Berg Heights project denied

A Grass Valley housing subdivision that promised 100 percent affordability was denied by the City Council Tuesday evening, raising the ire of the many Nevada County residents who packed City Hall to hear the decision.

The project, Berg Heights, was appealed after a Planning Commission refusal over concerns about traffic along Ridge Road. That decision was upheld by the City Council in a 3-2 vote Tuesday.

Councilmembers Mark Johnson, Dean Williams, and Lisa Swarthout supported the denial, saying they were concerned about the high density of the project, which would increase the daily number of vehicle trips in the area by 1,100. Swarthout and Johnson were also clearly irritated over what Johnson referred to as “11th-hour antics” by the developer.

“I’ve seen a lot (as an elected official in Nevada County), but I haven’t ever quite seen the 11th-hour antics brought forward by the applicants and it is very disturbing. I am not sure what is actually being proposed by this project,” Johnson said.

Johnson was referring in large part to a surprise move made Tuesday by developer Richard Kerr and his partner, the faith-based nonprofit, Tentmakers. Initially, the project was proposed by Kerr as being 50 percent affordable, but in a letter received that day by City Hall, two additional options were given. The first, either approve the project on the condition that it would have to be 100 percent affordable, which the nonprofit group said it was planning on anyway. Or secondly, approve just 50 homes, with 10 being affordable, which would likely be sold to recoup the half-million dollars already invested by Tentmakers, said Paul Fitzgerald, the nonprofit’s CEO.

Swarthout agreed with Johnson.

“I find this whole process completely disingenuous and somewhat reprehensible … to change mid-stream because you perhaps heard your project (might be denied). What you have given us and what we have here is completely different. If it was your intention to make your project 100 percent affordable from the very beginning, (you should have), but that is not the process Mr. Kerr went through with the Planning Commission,” she said.

Swarthout also said she was bothered by the position the applicants put the City Council in by making them appear as if they were against affordable housing.

Councilwoman Patti Ingram supported project, however, saying “I think it is disingenuous to punish families, because of traffic.”

Many residents took the time during public comment to speak on the need for affordable housing.

More than a dozen residents who represented the county’s nurses, teachers, firefighters, and police officers said they saw this as hope that they might be able to afford to purchase a home.

“There are a number of us who have had to move out of Nevada County (because housing prices are too high). Whether it is this project or another one I think affordable housing has to be a top priority so we can stay here in the community,” said Chris Armstrong, a full-time firefighter and part-time teacher in the county.

Terry McAteer, the county’s superintendent of schools, also spoke in favor of projects such as these that help address the issue of affordable housing to keep schools stocked with teachers and the community with a balanced mix of elderly and young.

“In the county, over the next five years, 50 percent of our teachers will retire. We need to focus in (on affordable housing), that is absolutely essential,” he said.

Councilman Williams said the city may have the opportunity to address the issue of affordable housing with other proposed developments in the area – including the four special development areas.

Mayor Gerard Tassone said he would have supported the Kerr and Tentmakers coming back with a revised down-sized plan.

To contact staff writer Brittany Retherford, e-mail brittanyr@theunion.com or call 477-4247.