City’s sphere of influence remains in limbo | TheUnion.com

City’s sphere of influence remains in limbo

In September, Nevada City residents packed the Rood Center to fight any proposed reduction to its "sphere of influence."

After a special Local Agency Formation Commission meeting March 22 in which an Environmental Impact Report for three proposed alternatives was discussed, any decision on what, exactly, will be the boundaries for that sphere remains at least a year out.

At issue is the actual area — the sphere of influence — in which Nevada City has a say in land use decisions and the ability to annex any of that area in the future.

The commission had presented a plan last year to slash the boundaries of Nevada City's sphere of influence from 2,907 acres to 1,425 acres. But at subsequent LAFCo meetings, Nevada City staff and members of the public argued in favor of retaining the city's current sphere of influence, which was adopted in 1983.

At the September meeting, LAFCo reviewed a "phased annexation plan" prepared by Nevada City, which provided a timeline for future land annexations and supported the city's preferred sphere of influence boundary. Commissioners, however, questioned the city's ability to provide water, sewer, police protection and fire services to the areas it proposes annexing in the future.

LAFCo Executive Director SR Jones said she had proposed the deep cut to Nevada City's sphere of influence for several reasons, including the city's low growth rate and past annexation history. She noted that updates are supposed to be performed every five years and the last one in Nevada City was done in 2008.

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In the wake of the September meeting, LAFCo staff and Nevada City staff began working together to hash out a compromise, Jones said.

"It's been a lot of back and forth," she said. "The staff and the city explored ways to move forward."

Jones pointed to a Nevada City staff report that stated, "The compromise alternative was the result of productive discussions between city and LAFCo staff in defining the scope of environmental review for the SOI update. The compromise boundary achieves many of the city's objectives in retaining important areas in the sphere."

What they came up with was a "consensus boundary," which is now the preferred alternative, Jones said. The consensus boundary retains most of the lands within the 2008 sphere boundary, with the exception of some areas that LAFCo says are remote from the city's public sewer system lines.

This alternative also lists four areas that are to be initiated for annexation by Nevada City — Area 1, which includes Prospector's Nursery; Area 2, which includes Juvenile Hall; Area 3, which includes the former Nevada County Health and Welfare Building; and Area 4, which includes cemetery facilities on Boulder Street and Park Avenue Extension.

LAFCo staff said an environmental impact report on Nevada City's plan needs to be completed and funded by the commission rather than burdening the city with the cost.

"We wanted to leverage the opportunity to help the city do the EIRs for the important annexations, to get them back on track," Jones said.

The EIR will look at three different proposed boundaries, she explained — the original sphere of influence from 2008, LAFCo's initial recommendation, and the consensus boundary.

LAFCo direction remains a concern

After the March meeting, some Nevada City advocates expressed disappointment with the decision by the commission to move forward with the sphere of influence update and the environmental impact review.

"It felt like the city was being punished," said Laurie Oberholtzer, a member of the steering committee for the Nevada Street/Willow Valley Area Neighborhood Association. "The LAFCO director has made it clear over the years that she does not agree with Nevada City's land use vision."

In particular, Oberholtzer expressed concerns with language in a draft request for proposals on the Sphere of Influence EIR that consideration must be given to the potential for change in land use regulation to allow increased density of use.

"This means (Jones) wants higher density than may be appropriate on Nevada City's perimeter, specifically on the HEW property," she said. "We can absolutely expect that as a recommendation in the EIR."

Oberholtzer is adamantly opposed to such an increase, adding, "We are not responsible for the entire western county's affordable housing demand."

Even though the proposed environmental impact report will explore three alternative boundaries, Oberholtzer remains concerned that there is potential for LAFCo to take land use planning decisions out of the city's hands.

"This will give (Jones) a lot of control over annexations, how those are going to go, how they will look," she said.

For her part, Jones noted LAFCo doesn't have authority to dictate or modify land use designations, or to increase or decrease density. And, she said, the selection of an independent consultant for the EIR will ensure an impartial review.

"Only the city can make land use decisions for annexations," Jones added. "The city is in the driver's seat for deciding when and if to annex land and for deciding the land use and zoning for proposed annexations."

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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