Whether in political debates, letters to the editor or casual conversation, in Nevada County, a tense relationship exists between past and future, between looking back and peering forward, between desire to preserve the rural pastures of the Sierra foothills and the will to provide economic development to sustain a viable community.
This tension is particularly crystallized in South County, where a series of developments centered around the intersection of Highway 49 and Combie Road figure to alter the face of a community with a tradition of being devoutly pastoral.
The intersection, known to locals as Higgins Corner, was named after Michael J. Higgins, a New York transplant who failed to strike gold along the American River in 1852 and tried his hand at ranching, the principal means of earning one’s bread for more than a century.
Homesteaders and ranchers who settled the area slowly began to create demand for services, such as schools, post offices, and utilities (electricity wasn’t introduced to the area until 1947, and universal telephone service wasn’t available until 1952.)
However, the largest alteration to the area’s bucolic temperament came in 1966 with the construction of the county’s first gated community, Lake of the Pines, built by Western Lake Properties, which was later bought by Boise Cascade.
Following the construction of the now approximately 1,900-house subdivision built around the lake, retail outlets began to crop up with a 1,200-square-foot country store built at Higgins Corner in 1971.
Farther east on Combie Road, the Lake Center, which features Holiday Market as an anchor, was built in 1983. Other stores were introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s to the Higgins Corner shopping complex, which currently features a CVS drugstore and a Chevron gas station on a six-acre site.
The development trend in the southern portion of the county is set to continue as four major developments are in the process of being built or scheduled to be constructed as soon as government approval is granted.
DarkHorse Golf Club, which was part of a 1,000-plus-acre, 317-lot residential subdivision nestled in the hills just south of LOP, was recently sold to Asian Pacific Group, an Irvine-based project.
Cascade Crossing (formerly known as Saddle Ridge), an 80-unit housing development, has begun site improvement projects, such as grading, utility installation and paving the entrance to Combie and Armstrong roads.
Higgins Marketplace, which has been embroiled in an ongoing lawsuit with an opposition organization, has seen progress. Fred Katz, developer on the project, said the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals asked for an administrative review of the case, which means a decision could be handed down within the next couple of months.
Finally, Rincon del Rio, a 345-unit continuing care retirement community on a 215-acre site, has recently been approved by the Nevada County Planning Commission, and its ultimate fate is expected to be decided by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors before the summer.
Barbara Bashall, executive director of the Nevada County Contractor’s Association, said she is excited about the development activity centered in South County as she expects many of her members who have been financially hurt by the Great Recession to be put back to work.
“There’s a lot going on down there,” Bashall said.
Keep it rural?
A group of South County citizens has banded together in opposition to development it sees as increasingly encroaching on an area of strong rural traditions.
Many residents have shown up to planning commission meetings to express opposition to Rincon del Rio, arguing that an amendment to Nevada County’s General Plan demonstrates the project does not fit in the context of South County.
“The general plan is a contract with the people that was thoughtfully designed to keep Nevada County rural,” said one of a bevy of speakers at the Feb. 14 planning commission meeting.
Planning Director Brian Foss said the general plan is less of a contract and more of a guiding document that is meant to be amended and altered as times change.
Nevertheless, many South County residents fret changes are endangering their lifestyle.
“South County should stay agricultural,” said Phil Easley, a former sheriff’s deputy and a rancher who lives in the region. “It’s the right climate to grow grass for livestock and to grow agricultural products.
“Every year, this way of life gets threatened by more and more development. My grandparents farmed here, but developers don’t care about that. They should go to areas where there isn’t as good as soil and access to irrigation.”
Joyce Ash moved to the Lake of the Pines Rancheros from Yuba City as a means of escaping the kind of suburban sprawl she worries will soon envelop her new neighborhood.
“I don’t miss (the suburbs),” she said. “Out here, it’s quiet. There is no traffic. There’s lots of woods. The atmosphere is country-based, and there are not a lot of people.”
Ash said she and a lot of her neighbors bought houses while depending on zoning as designated in the county general plan to stave off the incursion of the big city.
However, not everybody agrees with curtailing development altogether.
Bill and Lisa Rolland said they moved to South County from the Bay Area to experience a rural lifestyle unfettered by the traffic, pollution and noise of a big city.
Despite enjoying the rural lifestyle, the couple feels that clustered and tastefully accomplished development in an area that is already developed could help reduce sales tax leakage into Auburn and other parts of Placer County.
“You obviously want to keep it rural, but people still need services,” Bill Rolland said.
More importantly, Rolland said, the area needs an economic destination, a place where people can go and eat, shop and walk around, which will provide enough economic activity to sustain a healthy community and provide quality jobs without sullying the pastoral sense of South County.
Some of the reason South County residents say they are gun-shy about development is they witnessed two developments approved by the county in the mid-2000s that quickly transformed into what they deem unmitigated disasters.
The DarkHorse development was approved in 2004, and the original developer, Ed Fralick, finished building a golf course in 2005 and began soliciting offers for about 315 residential lots surrounding the links.
First billed as the “Street of Dreams,” the development quickly turned into a nightmare after Fralick defaulted in August of 2007 and Owens Financial Group Inc., the original lender on the project, assumed operational control.
Many residents who had bought lots and built homes quickly realized there was no infrastructure to support the operation of the high-end mansions they built.
“When I came into office (in 2009), there were people living in $1 million homes that didn’t have power, that had to use generators, and their wastewater wouldn’t work,” said District 2 Supervisor Ed Scofield, who represents South County on the Nevada County Board of Supervisors.
The problem intensified as the county agreed to haul wastewater collected at a half-finished plant on the project site to the Lake of the Pines wastewater treatment plant.
“DarkHorse is an example of why you need to have infrastructure in place before houses are built,” said Foss, the county’s planning director.
Bill Owens, president of Owens Financial, said the county was “criminally incompetent” in issuing building permits before the appropriate utilities were in place.
Fralick had bonded for completion of the treatment plant, but the county elected to apply the bonded money to a $22 million upgrade to the LOP plant and have the neighborhood cover the remaining costs, he said.
A lawsuit between the DarkHorse Golf Club LLC, which is affiliated with Owens Financial, and the DarkHorse homeowners association is ongoing.
Foss, who was not with the county’s planning department when the project was approved and the building permits were issued, said the county has learned from those past mistakes.
The county has signed a development agreement with Carol Young, project applicant for Rincon del Rio. The agreement stipulates phasing, infrastructure connections with the LOP treatment plant and what happens in the event of financial problems.
“Our message has been infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure,” Nevada County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green said at a Rincon del Rio public hearing.
Cascade Crossing also ran into problems after being approved, as the original applicants, DAS Homes of Woodland, clear-cut the 32-acre property to begin readying the site for home development but abandoned the project in 2007 amid the real estate slump.
“The project was started too quickly, and they devastated the hillside,” Scofield said. “People were very upset by this. It was sad. It was such a mess.”
Foss said the problems with the project were financial in nature.
Towne Development of Sacramento, a Roseville firm, recently bought the property, has begun comprehensive site improvements and has tentative plans to begin selling lots for development by August, said Jeremy Goulart, project manager for Cascade Crossing.
“Because of that history with the previous developer, we want folks to know we are a 60-year-old home-building company that has built more than 900 homes in the Sacramento area,” Goulart said. “We are committed to the project and committed to the community at large.”
Foss said the worry by many of the county residents that proposed developments will go the way of DarkHorse and the former Saddle Ridge in compromising the pastoral and natural environment, along with falling short of the economic aims, is “a legitimate concern.”
“But we will take as many steps as we can within our legal purview (to ensure development is done well),” he said. “We can’t control the market.”
However, Foss said the county is better equipped to protect itself against future development catastrophes by drafting agreements, ensuring infrastructure and planning against turbulence in the financial markets.
Change of plan?
Scofield said planners and policy-makers are capable of striking a balance between a need for economic activity and the need to preserve the historical character.
“I think the rural lifestyle changed dramatically with Lake of the Pines,” Scofield said.
The supervisor grew up in Grass Valley and remembers a time when the population density was centered exclusively in Nevada City and Grass Valley, but said the wastewater treatment plant built in LOP made it possible for further development in South County.
Scofield said he understands many of the residents’ qualms about development, but notes that much of the development is clustered around already existing residential build-up on the east side of Highway 49.
Foss said much of the land west of Highway 49 is designated as rural on the general plan, indicating the area is likely to remain largely untouched by teeming residential units for the foreseeable future.
Despite the general plan’s dynamic existence, it still strongly guides what planners are able to do, he said.
“The general plan evolves over time but in a reasonable way,” Foss said. “You can’t take a left turn. You can provide updates and changes on a specific level as times change, but there are general themes you have to abide by.”
For instance, an opposition campaign relating to Rincon del Rio claims the four contiguous parcels adjacent to the Bear River that comprise the proposed project site were originally zoned rural and have been changed to Continuing Community Retirement Care.
In fact, however, the plots were zoned Planned Development and were recently changed by the planning commission because a retirement community of Rincon’s nature was not foreseen by the creators of the 1995 general plan.
“There was always going to be a development in that location,” Foss said.
Meanwhile, much of the land west of Highway 49 is not zoned to accommodate any development.
Easley, who said he remembers when Roseville and Lincoln were dominated by wide-open spaces and have since become one ceaseless strip mall, frets the same type of development will spread to Nevada County.
“The southwest portion of the county is the last open rural part with rolling hills and not so many people,” Easley said. “You need space to grow food.”
The general plan indicates those living west of Highway 49 can continue to count on a rural lifestyle.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunioncom or call 530-477-4239.
“You obviously want to keep it rural, but people still need services.”
Bill Rolland, South County resident