Lawsuit continues to hold up Higgins Marketplace |

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Lawsuit continues to hold up Higgins Marketplace


(Courtesy of RCI Real Estate)

The southern gateway to western Nevada County, known to locals as Higgins Corner, was easy to miss for more than 100 years. But the area has grown to the point where it is impossible to ignore in the first decade of the 21st century.

“Higgins Corner” - the intersection of Wolf Road/Combie Road with Auburn Road (now Highway 49) - takes its name from Michael J. Higgins, who came to California from New York in 1852 to mine at Placerville. He eventually homesteaded 160 acres off Wolf Road, where he farmed, raised livestock, and established a blacksmith shop. Six of Higgins’ nine children were born at Higgins Corner, a name that first appeared in Nevada County records in the 1860s.

The south Nevada County area around Higgins Corner was isolated from the gold mining that fueled the county’s economy in the last half of the 19th century, and retained its rural character until fairly recently. The early pioneers cut the huge native oaks that dominated the rolling hills of the area and made charcoal, first for the Union forces in the Civil War and later for use at Iron Mountain Mine.

But ranching soon became the principle means of making a living, and few did better at it than Henry Pilliard, who emigrated from Switzerland to California in 1874 and homesteaded 160 acres on Combie Road near today’s Lake of the Pines development.

The land was full of timber that had to be cleared. With the help of his eight children and a five-horse team, Pilliard hauled $14,000 worth of lumber to Auburn and the pottery in Lincoln. He used the money to purchase grain, cattle, sheep, and later pear trees and grape vines to establish an orchard. The ranch eventually grew to 1,257 acres with the purchase of the Seifridge Ranch at the end of Combie Road, plus 1,400 leased acres. During the dry summer months, cattle were driven to Quaker Hill above Nevada City, by way of Rattlesnake Road to today’s Highway 174 - a two-day trip.

As ranch families settled in the south county, the need for permanent schools became a real one. Beginning in 1868, seven schools were built throughout the area to educate the children of ranchers. The earliest - both built in 1868 - were Forest Springs and Lime Kiln schools. Forest Springs was originally located on the Redman Ranch, site of the only local battle between the Maidu and Miwok Indians. The school could accommodate 100 students in grades one through nine, but it was not a little red school house - it was painted a yellow brown color. The final home of the school, on the Moose Lodge property, was closed in 1957.

The one-room Lime Kiln School was built on the Lime Kiln Ranch, a major source of the lime used in the hard water mining process of the 1850s. The school was destroyed by fire in 1908 and rebuilt the following year. It was eventually moved to Duggan Road and the remodeled building is still standing today as a private residence. Forest Springs and Lime Kiln joined with Wolf School - named for the township when it was established in 1891 on the Sweet Ranch - to form the Pleasant Ridge Union School District in 1957.

The south county area became known to many as “Wolf” because the only post office in the area was at the intersection of Wolf and Garden Bar roads. Established in 1885, the facility was run by John Sweet, a member of an early pioneer family. Another Sweet delivered the mail on horseback for many years. The post office became the center of a small community, and was the oldest post office in continuous operation in California when it was closed in 1956.

There was little commerce in the Higgins Corner area until the 1960s, and ranchers had to be self-sufficient because it was a long way over bad roads to the nearest stores. Until Highway 49 was built in 1947, getting to Grass Valley required a trip up old Auburn Road to Cherry Creek through Alta Sierra to the present Red Hat Station, then on to La Barr Meadows Road. (The roadway was dirt then.)

Things didn’t improve much after Highway 49 was built. A newcomer to the area in 1958 described 49 as “a narrow, winding road... There would be one car every couple of hours.” There were only four corners between Auburn and Grass Valley, and the only oasis in between was the Higgins Corner Service Station (pictured on right) and Higgins Corner’s Cafe, run by descendents of Michael Higgins.

Other amenities of modern life were also slow in coming to the area. PG&E didn’t bring in electricity until 1947 and universal telephone service didn’t arrive until 1952. (Two dozen families in the Wolf area built their own telephone service in 1915, owning their own poles and lines.) Full-time fire protection didn’t arrive until 1977, when the Higgins Area Fire Protection District was formed.

The character of Higgins Corner changed forever in 1966 when work began on Lake of the Pines, a concept that was so new at the time that it attracted national media attention. Western Lake Properties, later acquired by Boise Cascade Cop., proposed to surround a man-made lake with weekend and vacation homes.

Tracking the growth of Lake of the Pines has been Combie Plaza, the first retail complex in the area. A 1,200-square-foot country store, now known as Combie Deli, was the first opened by Dick and Jackie Dickey in 1971. But that didn’t last long. The store was doubled in size in 1975 and a second building was added in 1978, bringing a hardware store, beauty shop, accountant and other services. The last building was constructed in 1983 to hold a dentist, bank and title company. The mix of tenants has changed over the years, but the complex has continued to thrive.

A second shopping opened on Combie Road in 1983, the Lake Center. The complex opened with Holiday Market as its anchor tenant, and the market remains in operation today along with a mix of retail and professional services.

But a community is more than retail outlets; it is also schools, churches and community facilities. Five schools - three public and two private - now serve the children of the area; three churches are thriving; and Higgins Corner has had its own community center since 1994, the 4,000-square-foot Roy Peterson Center at Magnolia Road and East Hacienda Drive.

Visit for photos and more information on Higgins Corner.

Fred Katz, developer of the Higgins Marketplace, believes he will begin construction on the South County project that calls for 75,000 square feet of commercial space in 2014.

“Something is happening,” Katz said.

In 2009, Katz, owner of Roseville-based FHK Properties, obtained approval to begin construction on a project that includes plans to build an approximately 57,000-square-foot supermarket, originally slated as a Bel Air Market, flanked by smaller retail structures on a 20-acre lot behind the CVS Pharmacy at Combie Road and Highway 49.

However, a lawsuit filed by a group called South County Citizens for Smart Growth filed in September 2009 has halted progress on the project. The lawsuit, which alleged the county and the developer violated the California Environmental Quality Act on multiple fronts during the project approval process, was decided in favor of the county in August 2011.

Citizens for Smart Growth filed an appeal in November 2011, and the case has been stagnant in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals since.

Katz said a clerk at the appellate court recently requested paperwork from his legal team indicating a decision may be forthcoming.

“If we get a favorable decision, it would take six to nine months to get processed, and the project would go under construction 2014,” Katz said.

Margie Joehnck, Citizens for Smart Growth president, said that prospect is unsettling as the project would disturb traffic patterns in the area and prove detrimental to several of the area’s small businesses. Behind-the-scenes conjecture has placed Holiday Market grocery store as one of the financiers of the Citizens for Smart Growth, an assertion that Joehnck denied, saying that other small businesses in the area have, however, joined the group.

Calls to Holiday Market headquarters and attorney Keith Wagner, who represents the Citizens for Smart Growth, went unreturned.

A 2008 study by Bay Area Economics presented a best-case scenario in which Holiday Market sales are significantly reduced. Holiday Market has 13 stores across Northern California, including locations in nearby Auburn, Penn Valley, Cool and Meadow Vista, according to the company’s website.

“There is a distinct possibility that development of the proposed Bel Air store … would create competitive impacts such that the existing Holiday Market store … would not remain economically viable,” the report states.

“I question the wisdom of allowing big chains to take out the mom and pop,” Joehnck said.

Economics have changed since 2009, and it is no longer guaranteed that Bel Air will occupy the space, Katz said.

“We’ll pretty much start over on the economics, but we have drawn the interest of two other supermarket chains in the event Bel Air decides to move forward,” Katz said.

Candidates for the retail anchor do not include a Trader Joe’s as the supermarket chain prefers to inhabit a 25,000-square-foot building and enter an established trade area of 150,000 people, Katz said, suggesting Nevada City, Grass Valley and Auburn do not combine to reach such a population mark.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email or call 530-477-4239.