The wide divide – Broad roads blamed for pollution, loss of community and high housing costs
Dennis Babson hates trying to cross Sierra College Drive to walk on the Litton Trail.
“It’s a thoroughfare,” Babson said. “You have to have your act together to get across the road.”
The road spans more than 30 feet, a girth that leaves plenty of wiggle room for drivers but sets up quite a dash for crossers.
Like Sierra College Drive, many young roads across the county have bulged far beyond their predecessors, propelled by easy access to cheap land and buoyed by the belief that bigger is safer, said Steve DeCamp, the director of Nevada County’s Community Development Department and a longtime land use planner.
But with affordable land a distant memory, the trend toward roomy roads is reversing, DeCamp said.
Many planners, builders and environmentalists now believe wide roads – though great in emergencies such as fires – contribute to a host of ills by increasing traffic speeds, discouraging social interaction, hiking housing costs, and impairing water quality.
“(Road width) has real consequences. It can kill the planet and kill a social neighborhood,” said local architect Charles Durrett, who recently received a prestigious “smart growth” award from the National Association of Home Builders.
With houses separated by a sea of pavement, he said, neighbors feel “almost self-conscious” about waving or saying hello.
“The default is to forget about it and just get in the car and turn on the radio,” Durrett said.
Once in the car, however, drivers on wide residential roads – such as Grass Valley’s Scotia Pines Circle or St. Johns Drive – tend to drive fast.
“The street I live on (Rhode Island Street in Grass Valley) is far too wide,” said Planning Commissioner Gloria Hyde. “The result is that many people come speeding up the street … you can zoom.”
Hyde’s personal observations are backed up by numerous studies conducted by the Local Government Commission, traffic engineer Peter Swift, and engineers James Daisa and John Peers, among others.
“If streets are really wide, cars go too fast and (people don’t walk) because they’re afraid of being killed,” said local developer Phil Carville.
Wide streets and poor road design also hurt Wolf Creek, Deer Creek, and other area waterways, said John van der Veen, a chemist and board member of Friends of Deer Creek.
Water rushes along pavement, collecting grease, chemicals, dirt and other pollutants, which clump together and are flushed into waterways.
Downstream, the sediment can bury fish eggs, trapping baby fish inside their eggs, van der Veen said.
Well-designed roads slow water down, giving the sediment time to fall out of the stream, he said.
“The wider the road, the more runoff you have, the worse it is,” van der Veen said.
Roads that are too wide can also increase housing costs by adding the cost of the roadway to the sale price of neighboring houses, said local builder Keoni Allen, president of the Nevada County Contractors Association.
“Talk about wasting money,” Allen said of wide streets. “We’re building in black when we should be building in green.
“In residential neighborhoods, roads ought to be as narrow as we could get them. Less asphalt and more landscaping has to be a good thing and having neighbors closer together is certainly good,” Allen said.
Grass Valley’s Community Development Director Joe Heckel said he heard the same sentiments from residents who attended recent community workshops.
“We’ve heard from the community there is a real interest to have more of a neighborhood feel, which means providing more shade and the ability for folks to feel comfortable walking,” Heckel said.
The city is planning to institute those changes in the upcoming year. Consultants are currently working to revamp Grass Valley’s outdated zoning code, to allow for developments that mix businesses and residences and create more walkable neighborhoods.
And several of the proposed major developments, including some parts of Kenny Ranch and Loma Rica Ranch, plan to have narrow roadways within residential neighborhoods.
But wide roads also have a place, Heckel said.
Wide, usually empty, roads in new developments aren’t necessarily bad places to walk a dog.
And they have strong support from some drivers, traffic engineers and fire officials, who insist that wide roads decrease collisions and are absolutely essential to allow for emergency access.
“The more traffic you have, the more chance you have of interacting with another vehicle (and) the wider road you want, just for a margin of error,” said John Rumsey, a senior traffic engineer with Nevada County.
Fire officials also want to prevent accidents. But more importantly, they want to be able to get to, and around, an accident.
Roads must be at least 20 feet wide, with 10 feet of groomed vegetation on either side, said Vern Canon, fire marshal with Nevada County Consolidated Fire District.
“They really need to be that wide to get fire equipment into the area,” Canon said.
Narrow roads, which only allow for one-way traffic, are dangerous because “all it takes is somebody to breakdown, or panic” to block the road, Canon said.
Narrow-road advocates, however, point out that emergency access can be ensured by creating a grid of streets instead of rows of cul-de-sacs.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Barbara Bashall, executive director of the Nevada County Contractors Association.
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