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Historic district dilemma: Supporters, detractors of Nevada City measure make their case

An initiative seeking to include a large swath of residential Nevada City homes in historic districts is expected to appear next month before the City Council.

The initiative — currently in the signature verification phase — could redesignate multiple neighborhoods in a vote by the council, be sent to voters for their approval, or handed to city staff for a study to be conducted.

Supporters say the move is intended to retain local control after the passage of Senate Bill 9, which they say could change the character of Nevada City. The new historic districts wouldn’t face the same restrictions as the existing downtown, commercial historic district. They also would be exempt from SB 9.

“It takes away all public input,” said Daniel Ketcham, president of the Nevada County Historical Society and a supporter of the initiative, about SB 9.

Opponents disagree, saying that homeowners in the new districts would face new, onerous hurdles to overcome when making basic repairs to their homes.

“It‘s just going to drive up the cost of repairing your home,” said Pauli Halstead, who opposes the initiative. “It is really scary what they’re trying to do here.”


Supporters of the initiative began circulating a petition around the June 7 election. Ketcham in a news release said SB 9, which became effective this year, removed protections Nevada City had.

The new law lets homeowners divide their property into two lots and have two homes on each lot, essentially allowing fourplexes in areas that once only permitted one home, according to California YIMBY, an organization supporting housing reform.

Ketcham said supporters of the new law touted it as providing affordable housing. However, there’s no affordable housing requirement in SB 9. He said the law increases the residential density allowed and enables poor parking regulations. However, the crux is that Nevada has no ability to regulate its homes.

“For over 50 years the downtown historic district, citywide architectural review procedures, and zoning ordinance have furthered the Nevada City General Plan’s stated ‘most important single purpose … to preserve the essential character of Nevada City,’” his release states.

Creating new historic districts would make no new regulations over the homes within those districts, Ketcham said. Instead, it would exempt those areas from SB 9.

The new historic districts focus on areas near downtown, where over 50% of the homes are over 50 years old. Additionally, two accessory dwelling units would still be allowed, Ketcham’s release states. It does not include all Nevada City residences.

“This is only the incorporated part of Nevada City,” Ketcham said.


Halstead disagrees with Ketcham’s assessment, saying the new historic districts would create more bureaucratic steps for anyone wanting to repair their home. Homeowners would have to appear before the Planning Commission and gain permission to install a new roof. Windows would have to conform with a historic standard.

It’s also unnecessary. Halstead said SB 9 allows people to have four homes on a lot, but only if size allows. In the proposed districts, that’s typically not the case.

“It’s a moot point,” she added.

Halstead noted that the City Council, with three members approving, could pass the initiative without it going to the ballot. She and other opponents intend to make yard signs and raise awareness before the issue goes before council.

“Many people in town don’t know that this is happening,” she said.

Barbara Bashall, government affairs manager with the Nevada County Contractors’ Association, said her organization’s board is concerned about the initiative and leaning against it, but has taken no formal stance.

“It’s a very poor way of doing planning,” she said.

Teresa Dietrich, legislative affairs chairperson for the Nevada County Association of Realtors, said her organization’s legislative committee meets next week. It could take a formal stance on the initiative, which the board of directors would take up at its meeting later this month.

“We’re very concerned,” Dietrich said. “We already have a shortage of workforce housing.

“There has to be housing for everybody,” she added.


Ketcham said in his release that over 300 signatures were collected in two weeks, far more than were needed.

Those signatures are now being vetted by Nevada City, said City Manger Sean Grayson. It has until Aug. 5 to complete the process.

If supporters fail to garner enough signatures, the process stops. If they are successful, the deputy city clerk would issue a certificate to the applicants. The initiative would then proceed to the City Council, anticipated at its Aug. 10 meeting.

The council could vote on the historic districts initiative, with no vote of the people required. It could also send it the voter, or decide to have staff study the issue before it would return to the council, where it could be adopted or placed on the ballot, Grayson said.

If certain requirements are met, a special election could occur. The council also could put it on the next regular City Council ballot in June 2024.

Alan Riquelmy is the managing editor of The Union. He can be reached at ariquelmy@theunion.com or 530-477-4249

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