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Grass Valley traffic debate pits quality of life against growth

Aaron Hale drives through the intersection of East Main Street and Idaho-Maryland Road as often as 20 times a day.

During the morning commute, the noon lunch rush, the high-school crowd at day’s end and the evening race home, Hale sees the familiar sight of traffic backing up in every direction.

“It’s busier than I remember,” said Hale, 22. The Grass Valley native hauls refrigerators, dishwashers, tractors and other merchandise in a white Ford F-150 for the Sears store just off the intersection.



He may creep along East Main for as long as 10 minutes from Hughes Road to the intersection. He may wait as long as 20 minutes to pull out of the Sears parking lot on Idaho-Maryland.

Hale attributed the growing traffic to newcomers from the Bay Area and Southern California, and the businesses springing up to serve them.




“Grass Valley’s beautiful. That’s why I’m here,” Hale said. But he added, “As more businesses keep coming in, (the traffic) is going to get worse.”

The intersection has become the focus of a struggle pitting quality of life against growth. The City Council continues to wrestle with the issue as business owners threaten economic harm on the one hand and advocates of slower growth threaten the “Roseville-ization” of the town on the other.

The back-up that stirs the debate usually clears in 45 minutes. It is a scene of success and frustration: more jobs are available and more cars are on the road.

The delay that’s causing the uproar would be a wish-come-true on Market Street in San Francisco or Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

But it is easily enough to trigger the city’s strict traffic standards and stall a few larger developments that are planned for the East Main/Idaho-Maryland corridor.

The conflict about traffic raises questions with no easy answers:

– Is rising traffic caused by new businesses or new people?

– Must jobs come at the expense of the area’s precious rural lifestyle?

– Is it reasonable to expect to drive through Grass Valley without waiting for traffic?

– How much should new and growing businesses pay to soften the impact of growth?

– How much can businesses afford to pay before those costs make their enterprises financially untenable?

– Do residential and commercial developments in the rest of western Nevada County pay their fair share of the costs of growth in Grass Valley, the area’s economic hub?

While debate about the answers pounds on, the Grass Valley City Council will consider a resolution to lift its traffic standards for the intersection so that the six planned developments can go forward without restrictions. After three postponements, the vote now is scheduled for March 28.

Most of the affected projects come from local entrepreneurs who are expanding their existing businesses or building for other locals who wish to expand. One is an Auburn-based health clinic that would serve low income and Native American patients.

Under current city policy, the projects create too much traffic. Under the city’s strict guidelines for traffic congestion, measured by the wait time for a motorist to clear the stop signs during the evening rush hour, the intersection “fails.”

The city traffic policy lets the projects go forward if their promoters accept restrictions that reduce their traffic impact.

Those restrictions would lift the moment the City Council signs a contract to replace the intersection with a single-lane roundabout, currently seen as the most viable solution to congestion.

Getting to the contract could take at least 12 to 14 months, city officials estimate.

People concerned about orderly growth say the projects will have to wait. Business people say they can’t.

The resolution in question, brought to the council by Mayor Gerard Tassone and Councilwoman Lisa Swarthout, would let the projects move ahead without the restrictions that currently hobble them.

But Vice-Mayor Mark Johnson said he worries that the resolution, as worded, could open the door to unintended developments in the corridors. The city could face lawsuits if the council favors local projects over national chains that could try to squeeze in.

An organization that monitors traffic and city policy, Citizens Concerned About Traffic, said the city is not following its own policies.

Part of the city’s policy reads, “In no case should the city plan for worse than Level of Service “E” at any intersection … during the afternoon peak hour.” The intersection already operates at the worse “F” level.

In addition, the California Environmental Quality Act and other state laws require the city to plan for growth, gauge its impact and charge new construction its “fair share” of the costs of growth. The resolution violates both the city’s growth plan, which is legally binding, and CEQA requirements that the city review the resolution’s impact, CCAT argues.

Keoni Allen is building three of the projects affected by the traffic resolution. He warned the restrictions on the projects will spread the word that Grass Valley is anti-business.

“We’re starting to collapse our economy,” said Allen, who owns Sierra Foothills Construction Co. and is president of the Nevada County Contractors Association.

“A good job and being able to buy a house is an integral part of quality of life,” Allen said.

Jim Moule, who is moving his paint and glass store on East Main, said his project keeps sales tax revenue in the city. “We just want the people to shop here instead of going to Roseville,” he said.

But Steve Enos, a former city councilman who opposes lifting traffic restrictions, said the city risks turning into a Roseville clone if it allows businesses to expand without first improving the infrastructure to handle traffic.

In addition, CCAT leader Grant Cattaneo criticized the city for failing to build projects in recent years that could have addressed growing traffic.

“We want traffic fixes as we grow,” Cattaneo wrote in a memorandum. He cited an earlier CCAT newsletter that said, in part, “An environment that continues providing favors to a few is wrong.”

To contact staff writer Trina Kleist, e-mail trinak@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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