Rachel Helm: Bureaucratic excess alive and well in Nevada County
September 2, 2016
Recently, The Union ran an article reporting on the shortage of housing in the county for under $500,000, as well as an article on the high costs associated with building new homes in our county.
I can tell you from personal experience that the reality in terms of property development is much worse than what The Union described.
What follows is a summary of my journey into the morass of government regulations that control or, more accurately, thwart property development in Nevada County. Most of this doesn't cover building a structure on a piece of land, merely the process of splitting a 10-acre parcel into two 5-acre lots. The land was zoned for 5 acres so no zoning variance was required. There's no wetland on it, no exotic species. A process that I thought would be straightforward took two and half years to complete, and cost far more than I could imagine. Two years into the process, I had spent just under $6,000 for work and fees driven by state regulations and $4,530 on county-based requirements. I thought I was close to the finish line when I got a call from my surveyor informing me that there was an issue with the alternative evacuation route out of the area. I'm in South County so this route goes west toward Camp Far West and eventually connects into Highway 20. Eight miles from my property, the route goes over a single-lane bridge. The Fire Marshall's office concluded that the bridge turnouts did not comply with county regulations and needed to be improved. I was told I must make the road improvements before the county would approve the lot split.
Me: "I don't own that bridge!"
Is there any wonder that there’s a severe shortage of housing for buyers looking for a home in Nevada County that comes in under $500,000?
Surveyor: "No, Nevada County does. But they won't finalize the split until you improve that road."
Me: "That's outrageous! It's county property. It's their responsibility to keep it in compliance with their regulations!"
Ultimately, I was forced to pay for the work or walk away from all the money I'd already invested in the project. The road work came in at just under $4,000. Total outlay for county permits and project work specifically related to the split and improvements to the county road: $9,907.
When you add in the cost of additional necessary work such as the perch and mantle work, digging a well, the title search and the services of my surveyor, the final cost of the split came in just more than $43,000. That doesn't include what I originally paid for the land, taxes paid or maintenance costs.
I wish I could say this tale ends when the split was finalized but sadly that's not the case. The story now moves to the Building Department.
My new lot was put up for sale. A sale price was agreed upon with a buyer who went to the Building Department to talk about building options. The buyer came back to her real estate agent in a panic. When the buyer asked a representative from the Building Department whether there were any building constraints, she was told she couldn't build if it disturbed nesting birds. She was also told if she removed any blue oaks, she would have to plant three oak trees for every tree removed. I asked my realtor if the buyer was told that the nesting limitations were restricted to four months of the year or whether the buyer was told that she had five years to plant the new trees; apparently the answer was "no" on both. Finally, the buyer said she was told if she wanted to build a small house, which she did, she probably wouldn't be able to do so, because a small house wouldn't comply with ADA (American Disability Act) regulations. ADA regulations don't apply to residential properties. But by the time buyer was informed of this, it was too late and the sale fell out of escrow.
This isn't an example of responsible bureaucratic oversight. This is a glaring example of government agencies riding roughshod over the citizens they are chartered to serve, and demonstrates that such abuses are as eagerly undertaken by Nevada County agencies as are agencies of the State of California.
This onerous process discourages new construction and drives up the cost of housing to a point that puts it out of reach for many residents, particularly young families.
Is there any wonder that there's a severe shortage of housing for buyers looking for a home in Nevada County that comes in under $500,000?
Rachel Helm, who lives in South County, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinion is her own and does not reflect the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Contact her via EditBoard@TheUnion.com.