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Gates get chilly reception

Nine miles of trails and 10 acres of parks placed behind a gate, even an unlocked one, aren’t much good to Nevada County residents who live outside the gate.

And without a public benefit, the Nevada County Planning Commission isn’t likely to approve any version of the Wolf Creek Ranch Estates housing development, the commissioners emphasized Thursday night during a public workshop on the 141-house south county project first proposed 15 years ago.

The developer, Shady ‘S’ Ranches partnership, needs to offer county residents something in return for its potential impact on the rural south county, several planning commissioners said.



And no matter what the developer offers in return, the commission will almost certainly oppose the idea of gating Wolf Creek Ranch Estates.

Planning Commission Chairman Kurt Lorenz described the existing gated communities of Lake Wildwood and Lake of the Pines as “massive public giveaways from an unsophisticated planning commission that didn’t realize what it was giving away.”




What Shady ‘S’ Ranches needs to offer in return, as he and fellow commissioners Doug Donesky and Laura Duncan see it, would be a 60-acre public park off Highway 49 with access to Wolf Creek and the nine-mile trail system.

But in 1963, when Bay Area auto dealership owner Francis Marion Smith and his wife, Chris, purchased a 600-acre cattle ranch in south county for their holiday retreat, they had no idea they were signing up to contribute to the public good.

And even when they kicked off their effort to develop the property 15 years ago, they still thought they were just capitalizing on their property’s potential. But after years of environmental studies, delays and rejections, Chris Smith, her sons Frank and Scott, and their representative Bob Hayes are ready to concede to the commission.

“We’re at the edge of not affordable,” Chris Smith said Thursday, after spending four hours listening to the commissioners and project neighbors critique the latest incarnation of Wolf Creek Ranch Estates.

Hayes said they want to start construction next spring. But without speedy approvals by the commission and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, the construction schedule – and profit from home sales – are pushed even farther into the future.

Going into the Thursday workshop, the project designers thought they had responded to the concerns of commissioners and neighbors.

Since its February appearance before the commission, Shady ‘S’ Ranches Partnership installed gates, restricted public access to the trail system, took out about 55 condominiums, and upped the lot sizes to one acre.

As it appeared Thursday, Wolf Creek Ranch Estates was an “upscale” development with 132 large-lot houses and seven ranches with about 20 acres each.

But these changes didn’t get far with the commission. Donesky called them a step “backwards.”

“I have to echo my disappointment,” Lorenz said minutes later. “The recreational aspects were completely thrown out. It seemed a bit nasty.”

Thus began a prolonged exchange between the commissioners and Hayes, witnessed by south county neighbors and the visibly frustrated Smith family.

Eleven project neighbors joined in the dialogue, lauding the partnership for lowering the density but emphasizing that traffic from even 141 houses was just too much for the curvy and hilly Lime Kiln Road.

“My husband and I listen to the (cars) squeal as they come around and then we listen for a crash,” said Lynda Jackson, who lives off Lime Kiln Road on a hill with views of the Sutter Buttes.

In the end, the commissioners agreed with the neighbors and Hayes that a direct link to Highway 49 was preferable over connecting through Lime Kiln.

Highway 49 access, on what is currently Shady ‘S’ Lane, a sleepy gravel road, just might be the deal-breaker for the project.

If the project can obtain a direct link to Highway 49, Hayes said he would be willing to offer a 60-acre park and nine miles of trails to a public entity. That scenario would placate the commissioners and project neighbors.

The potential deal-breaker, however, is Caltrans, which is notoriously reticent to allow direct access onto its highways.

Along the stretch of Highway 49 south of Lime Kiln Road, Caltrans Project Manager Tom Brannon said the department is tentatively considering constructing a frontage road on the east side that would feed into Cerrito Road.

Wolf Creek Ranch Estates will return before the Planning Commission at the end of September or in October, Interim Planning Director Randy Wilson said.

With little discussion, the Nevada County Planning Commission unanimously voted Thursday night to approve plans to build six small homes in the center of Penn Valley. Three of the homes will have one bedroom because of constraints on sewage disposal, said Associate Planner Uma Hinman. The houses will be located off Penn Valley Drive beside an existing duplex and near a car wash, gas station and mobile home park.


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