Revised rules could spark more housing, advocates say
Housing ordinance can spark abundance of options
For decades affordable housing has been a chief concern of both Nevada City residents and its government, leading to questions of how to craft a guiding document that would help satisfy housing needs while maintaining historic character.
The city’s cottage ordinance, first proposed in December 2017, comes close to the goal, its advocates say. While still evolving into a final draft, it has received support from an organization that has collaborated with stakeholders who desire to provide housing answers, said Jonathan Collier, a co-founder of Live Work Thrive Nevada County, an unincorporated association of people, nonprofits and government entities.
“One of the most innovative solutions to accomplish our mission is the cottage dwelling component that is currently proposed in Nevada City,” said Collier in a public comment session during the Sept. 8 Nevada City Council meeting. “The ordinance will help adjust housing development attempts to restore a lack of housing, and we saw it as an incredible tool during the Planning Commission’s (Aug. 19) meeting.”
Live Work Thrive Nevada County wants to expand the ordinance.
“We requested the state funded (California Environmental Quality Act) review be expanded to include commercial zones, general business, office/professional, and service lodging structures,” said Collier. “To be clear, an application for a residential project of up to 8 units per acre can be submitted today in any of these zoning districts.”
But according to Laurie Oberholtzer, a recently ousted member of the Planning Commission, the commission was not warm to the initial proposal and requested more information to determine potential impacts.
“This might not be consistent with the city’s general plan, so we requested another meeting,” said Oberholtzer. “There was nothing wrong with Jonathan wanting to increase the (environmental impact report). But the cottage ordinance proposed to increase (maximum density) from 18 units per acre to 32 units for R3 (maximum density) zones and to 16 units per acre, R2 (medium density).”
Collier noted the city has 25 acres of of R2 and R3 property.
“The housing element shows the realistic capacity of just 87 units,” he said. “Many of these properties have parameters that do not allow for development. A good example is the emergency vehicle access needed for any property that has a single entrance/exit. Potential housing parcels, 641 Broad Street, have reduced usable acreage due to steep slopes; 530 Silva Avenue, landlocked, has access issues; 671 Chief Kelly Drive is city owned; and 651 Coyote Street has conflicting documents on zoning designation.”
Oberholtzer pointed to projects approved last year — like Cashin’s Field at 56 units and The Grove at 71 units, the former aimed at low/very low income residents and the latter at moderate to low income. This fulfills the state’s requirement for the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a 1969 mandate that all cities plan for housing for residents, regardless of income.
Oberholtzer said the city already surpassed the requirements of 29 units for very low income and 23 for low with Cashin’s Fields. Moderate income needs 23 units zoned, and for above moderate, 60 units. Combined with The Grove, Nevada City has 127 units in the pipeline with 136 required by 2027.
Collier said approved projects are not constructed projects. He doesn’t consider an empty lot, even if if zoned R2 or R3, as providing a home. When applying the cottage ordinance within the commercial zones, projects would require a conditional use permit, requiring a commercial element to the project.
“It was added by the city planner and we agree with this revision,” said Collier. “This provides the city with extra discretionary powers. This offers incentive to maintain the same historic architecture downtown, commercial shops at the street level and residences above. The addition of a (conditional use permit) complements the mixed-use incentive and is a positive change.”
Oberholtzer said if the cottage ordinance was expanded, it could increase population growth to 5% or more.
“The city will need more water and sewer delivery as well as police and fire protection, also fire evacuation deployment,” she said. “It’s a lot to absorb in one year. The city’s vision has always been to be a small town. One percent growth is moderate growth. I’m for moderate growth and there’s evidence of cities swallowed up by rapid growth and spoiling the character of their town.”
Nevada City in 2010 had 3,068 people, according to the U.S. census. In 2015 it had 3,153 people. In 2019 it had 3,148.
Nevada City already has other tools allowing for growth, Oberholtzer said. The 30% affordable housing provision, passed in the early 2000s with projects of two units or more, is aimed to attract affordable housing. Under that ordinance, the city approved 100 units, with 49 of them considered affordable.
“We have a density bonus ordinance, if you’re willing to put in a percentage of affordable housing, the developer gets 50% more density,” she said. “We already have mixed-use, and it reduces housing costs by including a commercial element. And we have accessory dwelling units.”
Collier doesn’t think the change to accessory dwelling unit rules helped substantially.
“ADUs are wonderful options, but very costly and do not add value like a single-family home,” he said. “Considering the current cost of materials and labor shortages, it’s highly unrealistic that we built enough ADUs to increase housing capacity.”
Barbara Bashall, the government affairs manager of the Nevada County Contractors’ Association, agrees that housing is a critical issue.
“All California has a shortage of housing — especially workforce housing,” she said. “Nevada County lacks medium income housing. Cashin’s Fields is really low income/subsidized housing. So, government needs an ordinance to encourage medium income, and the cottage ordinance is the piece that includes smaller, less expensive housing units.”
The density bonus, already in place, is a good method that offers incentive for developers to build that type of housing, Bashall said. By contrast, she noted the 30% affordable housing ordinance crafted by Oberholtzer discourages developers.
“Banks don’t like to make loans on deed restricted properties,” she said.
The 30% ordinance would pressure developers to charge more for the remaining 70% and those inflated costs can discourage buyers and possibly slow down growth, Bashall said.
“To satisfy workforce housing, an expanded cottage ordinance is a way to achieve it. That’s my take on it,” said Bashall.
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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