Process to re-open Sargent House as a B&B prompts inn-fighting
Proceedings to revive a dormant Broad Street mansion as a bed-and-breakfast are drawing some critics – several of them Nevada City innkeepers.
The City Council must pass an ordinance to reopen the historic Aaron Sargent House, which operated as Grandmere’s Inn B&B before new owners converted it to a private residence in 2004, let its use permits lapse and, ultimately, saw the lender foreclose on it about a year ago.
The Nevada City Planning Commission will consider a draft ordinance allowing the inn to reopen at its meeting 6:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall, 317 Broad St. If passed, the commission will forward the ordinance to the City Council.
Critics say the proposed ordinance skirts the will of voters. Proponents say the B&B would restore tourism dollars to the cash-strapped city and small businesses teetering on the edge of insolvency.
Measure B, passed by city voters in 1984, allowed bed-and-breakfast inns in residential areas. A second ordinance passed in 1994, Measure G, reversed the rule and barred new B&Bs from opening.
Since then, about half a dozen of the city’s B&Bs have closed and become private residences or offices.
The 1994 vote repealed the 1984 rule, leaving the city with no protocol for re-opening former B&Bs that lost their inn status, according to City Attorney Hal DeGraw.
Some residents contest that interpretation. A previous city attorney ruled that, under the ordinance, even former B&Bs could not resurrect if their use permits lapsed.
The white-columned, 6,400-square-foot mansion was built around 1911 on property first owned by former U.S. Senator Aaron A. Sargent during the 1850s, according to Brita Rozynski of the Nevada County Historical Society, who has researched Sargent.
Used as a B&B between 1988 and 2004, it was an active part of downtown and a destination for a steady stream of weddings. It is located just outside the downtown business district, near the “Y” at the top of Broad Street.
It was in foreclosure for almost a year, and was purchased at auction in July by a Truckee-based Realtor. Neighbors complained earlier this summer that the dying grass and overgrown shrubbery were becoming an eyesore.
Andrew Howard, who owns the Emma Nevada House on Broad Street with his wife Susan, has expressed his intention of buying the property and converting it to an upscale inn.
“I need more rooms,” Howard told commissioners. “This town could support twice as many B&Bs if they were competitive and well-run.”
Supporters of Howard’s plan point to his successful management of the Emma Nevada House. Nevada City business owner Jim McConnaughay noted the B&B’s high ranking on travel review website Tripadvisor.com, where it earned a 98 percent satisfaction rate based on 139 reviews.
Other innkeepers, including Chuck Shea of The Parsonage, and Conley and Mary Louise Weaver, who own the Red Castle Inn, told commissioners the town has plenty of rooms, and this is not the right economic climate to reopen a new inn.
Shea and Nevada City resident Bob Nienaber have written letters to The Union saying city staff and commissioners were sidestepping the will of the voters and showing favoritism to Howard, who is Nevada City’s treasurer.
Previous owners applied to reopen the Sargent House as a B&B, but were denied.
City Manager Gene Albaugh denied accusations of favoritism, saying a previous city attorney dealt with the issue last time, and Howard’s position was not one that influenced the process.
The city treasurer is an elected position, unlike the full-time finance director staff position. Howard earns $1,200 annually, and his term ends in 2012.
Re-opening the Sargent House is still several steps away. After holding public hearings, both the Planning Commission and City Council must approve an ordinance. Potential B&B operators must then buy the property and obtain conditional use permits.
City Planner Cindy Siegfried said staff was going through the standard protocol and wasn’t giving Howard any special treatment.
“I’m pleased the process is doing what it’s supposed to do, and the commission is doing what it’s supposed to,” Siegfried said. “This ordinance didn’t take precedence over any others.”
To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4247.
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