Kipchoge Spencer: Grass Valley City Council dropping the ball on Loma Rica Ranch
It’s not news to most of us that we’re facing a shortage of affordable housing in our county or that we need to do something quick and radical about the climate crisis. But judging from the recent Grass Valley City Council meeting to consider the Loma Rica Ranch development, those considerations are very much beside the point.
Voting 4-1 to advance as-is, the council apparently subscribes to the tired and disproven “what’s good for business is good for everything” development philosophy, and seems eager to shepherd in 235 new units of unaffordable housing without concern for who benefits, who pays, what the climate impacts are or a host of other community values.
The lowest-priced homes in this proposed development, duplexes, will start in the “high $300s.” To afford a house in the high $300s, one needs a hefty down payment and a $95K/year salary. The median family in Nevada County earns $57K (and could afford a $231K home). We don’t build many new housing developments around here; shouldn’t we make sure that every time we do it’s a slam-dunk for the community, especially when we’re subsidizing it (by waiving roughly $10K per house in city development fees)? Doesn’t the world agree that the age of under-considered, conventional housing developments can be put to rest?
The cheapest Loma Rica homes price out at about $330 per square foot. The developer says they can’t make them any less expensive. But, according to the Census Bureau, the median construction cost for new homes in the West is $152/sf. While $152 might not be the local reality, it should serve as a starting point in the conversation.
At the meeting, one local says his family and many others live happily in 900-sf, three-bedroom homes in Grass Valley and asked why the Loma Rica Ranch homes have to be so large? Wouldn’t the homes be more affordable if there were more of them and they were smaller, decreasing the cost of land per unit, the amount of energy and resources they consume to build and the monthly utility bills? Is there a great reason there aren’t more multi-family units like apartment buildings, condos or even a cohousing section? The massively successful Nevada City cohousing development is oversubscribed, affordable and one of the only places in the area that has townhomes, which are ideal for young families and an aging population that wants to, or needs to, move off acreage and into town.
Nevada City cohousing’s developer, local but internationally renowned architect Charles Durrett, is confident that 1,000-1,200-sf units could be developed at Loma Rica for sub $250K. His plans save money in part by having less asphalt per car, shared walls, shared heating systems, less siding and roofing and other benefits of building smarter. Surely not everyone needs a detached dwelling and certainly most of us can’t afford one. Can the Grass Valley City Council tell us why they won’t demand the developer offers a decent percentage of sub-$250K homes?
Shouldn’t we be trying to minimize driving and congestion by including a school, a day care, a dentist, a doctor, a nice restaurant or two, a great bus stop, a ballpark, and a bike shop — in a car-free pedestrian mall that feels like a real neighborhood instead of more strip mall blight — that you can walk to on the Loma Rica Ranch’s lovely proposed trail network? Shouldn’t we add roundabouts instead of shedding them, since they save gas and waiting times? The Glenbrook Basin (where Loma Rica Ranch will be built) is probably the least safe place in the county for walkers and bike riders. Shouldn’t we take the development and planning opportunity to work on connective protected bike lanes to the rest of Grass Valley and Nevada City, and new transit service?
Our neighbors to the north, the City of Chico, just declared a climate emergency. Can we also recognize that housing development is critically tied to climate impacts and make sure that the whole project (commercial buildings, too) is carbon neutral and 100% powered by its own solar PV microgrid? Can we make sure that the higher priced homes specify the latest carbon negative architectures?
Instead of plowing ahead like everything’s golden, can we start messing with the controls and do whatever is in our power to make this development awesome and massively beneficial to the community in every way?
One final but important note: the local business community showed up for that city council meeting; it’s time the rest of us do, too.
Kipchoge Spencer lives in Nevada City.
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