Grass Valley City council candidates sound off |

Grass Valley City council candidates sound off

Grass Valley city council candidates Ben Aguilar (from left) Bob Branstrom, Hillary Hodge, and Steven Slack, answered questions from the media and the community during Wednesday evening's League of Women's Voters Forum. The four candidates are vying for two available council seats.
Photo Illustration by Elias Funez/

Affordable housing — and the lack thereof — was a primary topic Wednesday night during the Grass Valley City Council candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

The four candidates running for two open seats — incumbent Ben Aguilar along with Bob Branstrom, Hilary Hodge and Steven Slack — all agreed workforce housing is a necessity. But they differed in their approaches to the problem.

In response to a question about high-priced subdivisions and gentrification, Hodge came out swinging.

”It’s hard for me as a young person, who’s still working,” she said, citing the plight of firefighters who work to safeguard a community they can’t afford to live in. “It’s upsetting.”

How can we attract business to the county, she argued, if there is nothing affordable for their workers, if “all we offer is McMansions.”

Hodge acknowledged the beneficial effect of retirees infusing money into Nevada County.

“But there’s a disruption in housing, there’s a wobble toward unaffordable homes to the detriment of working people in our community,” Hodge said.

Slack agreed that a balance of housing is desirable, but argued gentrification is a fact of economic progress and that private property owners have the right to develop their land as they see fit.

An attempt to restrict high-end developments could end in litigation, he said.

Aguilar also cited concerns with property rights and said higher-priced developments can be a boon.

“I think it is positive — it creates more jobs, more opportunities for restaurants and businesses to sell to those people,” he said.

And he noted that recent housing development prices were driven by market forces.

“There are a lot of homes in the works,” Aguilar said. “Affordable is a generic term. There needs to be a variety, and more housing … more apartments would be adequate.”

Branstrom said he saw a bias in the community against building expensive homes for out-of-towners.

But, he said, “We need housing for locals, we need workforce housing, we also need to accommodate people who want to move here. I’m one of them. I moved here five years ago.”

Branstrom, who lives in Wolf Creek Lodge cohousing, noted the mix there of locals and transplants is about 50-50.

“What’s important is that we provided 30 units,” he said. “We need to keep building here … We just need more homes in general.”

Hodge noted the high cost of construction hinders affordable housing, adding, “The regular system of how we approach building has to be innovated.”

She suggested more accessory dwelling units as one method of getting more units without increasing density.

Slack said Grass Valley has to work with the county, citing space restrictions on building new developments, and touted cohousing as a good alternative.

The bigger challenge, he said, is creating economic opportunities and a living wage.

Branstrom agreed, saying Grass Valley is very dependent on the transient occupancy tax and retirees, and needs higher-wage jobs in manufacturing and tech.

There’s a gap between what people can afford and what developers can afford to build, he said.

“Part of that is due to the high cost of construction, and high permit fees,” Branstrom said. “It can cost $45,000 for permits. One possible way of dealing with this is to look at mitigation fees … and possibly defer some of those.”

The high cost of development in California is due to a number of factors including codes, mitigation fees and the cost of goods, Aguilar said.

“What do we concede?” he said.

In response to a question about relaxing building codes, he said those are set by the state and not under the control of city government.

Aguilar argued any increase in housing stock is positive, as it gives everyone the opportunity to move up.

“You can’t supply and demand this away,” Hodge said. “Subsidized housing does not exist any more. Local government is going to have to move into something that makes sense.”

A trickle-down theory of affordable housing, she said, “is not happening for young people in our community. We have to find other solutions.”

Cannabis questions

Economic development was the thrust of a number of questions from the audience and a media panel.

All four candidates said they would be open to exploring allowing cannabis businesses such as dispensaries and manufacturing to operate in Grass Valley.

“They should be allowed to compete like any other business,” Slack said, adding they should be taxed with the revenue used for housing, for the mentally ill and on education programs for youth.

“Right now Grass Valley has a complete ban on marijuana,” Aguilar said, explaining the council wanted to have complete control over the process.

“I think it’s time to bring that conversation back,” he said. “It’s important to learn from other places’ mistakes, cherry pick the great ideas and not rush into something. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the regulations and it’s very confusing. It’s important to go forward very carefully.”

Branstrom said Grass Valley was wise to have taken a wait-and-see approach, but that it was time to take another look.

Branstrom would not be in favor of allowing cultivation in town, but advocated permitting manufacturing and distributing, which he said would provide an opportunity for some tax revenue.

“It does provide jobs,” he said, adding the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance was touting 50 new jobs in Nevada City due to the influx of cannabis businesses there. “Grass Valley could be a part of that. It’s time to have a public discussion.”

Hodge got a laugh from the audience when she noted cannabis is not an emerging industry in Nevada County but has been around for decades.

“People are poised to capitalize on the cannabis economy,” she said. “It’s really important to remove the Wild West element … It behooves the community … to put a lawful, regulated system in place.”

Dorsey Marketplace

A revamped application for the controversial Dorsey Marketplace was a topic of discussion, with the candidates agreeing that added housing was a positive change.

Hodge cited needing more sustainable economic development as one reason she decided to run for a council seat. She stressed that Grass Valley should strive to support its home-grown businesses, saying it can’t rely on “magical unicorns from the Silicon Valley moving here to provide jobs.”

Slack castigated the current council for a lack of leadership in fixing infrastructure problems like potholes, and called the city’s unfunded pension liability “astonishing.” He said Grass Valley’s council has not adequately addressed issues such as homelessness, saying it needs to create effective social change through a strategic plan.

Branstrom said his candidacy was, quite simply, about his love for Grass Valley.

“I have a good set of skills that I can bring to solve problems,” he said. “I evolved from (working) behind the scenes to thinking I could offer leadership.”

Aguilar cited his stint on the planning commission and council as valuable in teaching him about how government works.

“I’m very proud of Grass Valley, it’s in a very, very positive momentum right now,” he said. “I’m here to carry the torch.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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