Nevada City council candidates talk cannabis, housing, homelessness at election forum | TheUnion.com

Nevada City council candidates talk cannabis, housing, homelessness at election forum

The four candidates for two open seats on the Nevada City City Council were in agreement on a lot of things during a forum Thursday night — most notably, the issues facing the small community.

This June will be the first time in more than a decade Nevada City's voters will have a choice of candidates — incumbents Evans Phelps and Duane Strawser, and challengers Pauli Halstead and Erin Ruark Minett. The top two vote-getters will serve four years on the five-person council and will take office in July.

The candidates agreed that a lack of affordable housing — or "achievable housing," as Strawser said — is a big problem.

They differed, however, in their approach to potential solutions.

Housing solutions

Halstead said she saw housing in all income categories as a main task she wants to accomplish if she is elected. She pointed to encouraging accessory dwelling units as a good way to in-fill, adding the city needs to provide incentives for homeowners to build them and safeguards to make sure they are used for long-term rentals.

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Phelps agreed, saying the city could do more to encourage loosening restrictions on ADUs.

"I want to see a tiny house complex, like co-housing, with 400-square-foot houses," she said, citing a potential price of about $150,000. "That is my fantasy."

Strawser cited several developments built in recent years, but added, "It's been tough because of our (small) footprint. We do have some possibilities, and we need to encourage that from the council level."

Minett said Nevada City has an affordable housing ordinance in place that has not been enforced, saying the requirement for a certain percentage of affordable units was waived for the last two developments approved.

The ordinance requires 30 percent of homes within any new housing developments be designated for affordable housing. The ordinance also requires 20 percent of homes in new subdivisions have second dwelling units between 350 and 640 square feet.

In 2014, The Grove's developers asked the City Council to waive those restrictions in favor of their "affordability by design" proposal. The Bungalows, a proposed six-unit housing development on Searls Avenue, also has proposed an "affordable by design" plan in lieu of agreeing to create deed restrictions for two of the units — 30 percent — to ensure affordability.

"We need to use what we have in place, we need to enforce that — or we aren't going to get what we need," Minett said.

Strawser took exception to Minett's characterization that the city hasn't followed the affordable housing guidelines, saying there were valid reasons restrictions for the Grove and Bungalows developments were waived. Phelps agreed, saying the ordinance as written was not working. Halstead said that while it would be nice to stick to the ordinance, it should be re-worked if necessary.

In response to a question about AirBnBs, Phelps said Nevada City's ordinance prohibits whole-house rentals and said they do not negatively impact the inventory of long-term rentals.

Strawser agreed, saying that for a number of homeowners in Nevada City, renting out a room occasionally is the only way they can afford to keep their homes. While the city needs to control and limit the number of such rentals, Strawser said, it also needs to respect private property rights.

Both Minett and Halstead said accessory dwelling units are a workable solution to increasing the rental inventory.

Homelessness

What some see as a growing homeless population also was a topic of discussion.

Strawser said the biggest problem he sees is the seasonal influx of trimmigrants here for the marijuana harvest season.

"We need to focus on locals," he said.

Both Strawser and Phelps noted the city's warming shelter agreement needed to be updated to be more sustainable.

"I'm not willing to leave anyone out in the cold," Strawser said, adding the county needs to step up to help manage it better.

"It's just little Band-Aids on a great big problem," Phelps acknowledged.

In Halstead's view, the city should discourage efforts to feed homeless clients in parking lots or other public spaces, saying it only draws in outsiders passing though.

"Let's set some boundaries," she said.

The possibility of a microhousing village also was also discussed, with Phelps saying she didn't see any city property that would be viable.

Halstead said such a village would work if it was either supportive or transitional housing, with county support. Many of the unhoused have a mental illness or drug addiction and need intensive case management, she said.

Strawser said such a village cannot work and typically fall apart because the tenants are unable to self-manage the village. He said the focus should be on transitional housing.

Cannabis

Nevada City was the first municipality in the county to address medical marijuana business licenses, which has been a contentious process. The city did grant one medical marijuana dispensary license this year, with the agreement they would revisit the issue and potentially grant more licenses next year. Council candidates differed as to whether they would consider such an expansion, however.

"It's been a challenging year for sure," Strawser said, adding that licensing those business was the best way to control and monitor them. But, he said, adding a second or third dispensary would give Nevada City the largest per-capita percentage in the country.

Minett agreed that one dispensary is enough in such a small city.

"We need to see how it goes," she said. "A lot of people in town are nervous. Hopefully it goes well, and we get tax money from this."

Halstead expressed confidence in the professionalism of the cannabis business owners, saying she would be on board for adding another dispensary if things go well.

Asked if they would support permitting a recreational-use dispensary, Phelps and Strawser both said no.

"I don't support it at this point," Strawser said.

"Not in a year," Phelps said. "In 10 years, maybe. I don't think that is what our community wants."

Minett and Halstead were more equivocal, both saying it should be revisited.

City identity

A question as to why Nevada City should remain an incorporated city drew the most-spirited responses.

"To preserve our unique character," Halstead said. "We worked hard for that and it's precious to us."

Strawser agreed that remaining a city might not make sense from a financial standpoint. Nevada City looked at outsourcing its police department a few years back, he said,

"The community spoke loud and clear (that) they wanted to maintain that," he said. "We want to maintain our independent status."

Minett and Phelps were more emphatic.

"People would be really up in arms," Minett said. "Nevada City is a wonderful place, full of wonderful people. Even the City Council is unique. … I can't give you any good reasons other than absolutely not. So there!"

Phelps agreed, saying, "I don't think there's a voter in town who would support us disbanding, that's how strongly we feel."

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