Terry Lamphier: Grass Valley’s burning desire for growth
On July 18, around noon, I was sitting in stalled downtown Grass Valley eastbound traffic that was backed up on West Main street from City Hall to Alta street (and beyond?).
As I sat there, Grass Valley Fire Department’s Battalion Chief approached from a side street, siren blaring and fire bound, and proceeded to drive in the opposing (westbound) traffic lane through downtown, luckily with little oncoming traffic.
Less than a week later, Grass Valley’s planning commission approved yet another locally unaffordable housing development, Gilded Springs (“gilded: wealthy and privileged”; Encarta dictionary), on West Main about a block from Alta.
Greg Weber (organic farmer, my neighbor and one of the hardest working people I know) had been evicted from the Gilded Springs site on which he had run a successful local business for several years. As reported in The Union, at the hearing he testified that “a large portion (of the site) is not suitable for construction (due to periodically high water tables varying, according to City studies, as much as seven feet), that traffic mitigation measures are inadequate and that the planning commission is “not addressing the needs of the community. Very few people … can afford these ($400,000 to $700,000) houses.” This is backed up by federal census data.
The city staff, meanwhile, stated that the development is consistent with the decades old Grass Valley 2020 General Plan. Grass Valley Community Development Director Tom Last said it would go to City Council, that in his words, is “a formality at that point.”
It is not hard to believe the project will sail through the Council. After all, Mayor and City councilmember Lisa Swarthout was a planning commissioner and part of the steering committee that wrote the aggressive growth 2020 General Plan back 1999.
The document planned for a nearly 50% growth by now, assuming thousands of new homes around the Northstar House, Ridge Road, the Loma Rica ranch and southwest Grass Valley. Most plans fell through, largely due to last decade’s speculative housing crash; Loma Rica being the sole survivor.
Some parts of the document ring true today: “despite some concerns about becoming a bedroom community … any plan to establish a balance between jobs and housing must consider the City’s regional function … nearly 60% of City residents rent. Thus the City of Grass Valley is the regional focal point for rental and multi-family housing.” It is worth noting that the General Plan recognized citizen desires: “Grass Valley residents value highly the City’s small town, rural character and sense of community … the General Plan strives to maintain Grass Valley’s small town character…”
This contrasts with Swarthout and fellow councilmembers’ recent, aggressive approval of numerous housing projects featuring locally unaffordable homes, none of which address the needs she helped identify 20 years ago. As I noted, federal census data affirms that Grass Valley residents are too poor to buy the houses Council continues to approve.
As a planning commissioner, I was criticized for pointing out that City planning staff appeared to “cherry pick” the General Plan by citing clauses that supported development while ignoring clauses that worked against developers. For example, as regards “Gilded Springs,” the General Plan’s “Safety Policies” include “maintain or return to open space lands subject to flooding,” “incorporate fire hazard reduction considerations into land use plans/patterns, both public and private,” and “identify, maintain, and mark evacuation routes for use in case of disasters or emergencies.”
How do these work to support “Gilded Springs?” They don’t, unless you count a new fire evacuation route through a previously quiet dead-end street. As regards “Gilded Springs” neighbors, Facebook postings showed that most neighbors on that street became aware of the project because one neighbor went door to door with a flyer, a twisted commentary on the City’s apparently poor notification process.
Some development-friendly Council decisions border on the absurd. The Council recently voted to seek $17 million of State taxpayer funds to build, among other things, a new park between the new Timberwood Estates and the Loma Rica development. The qualifications? “A community median average household income below $51,026 within a half mile radius.” The reality? Home prices in these developments require much higher incomes, yet the city wants to provide these folks a “free” park.
The only result one can reasonably expect is that it will make the new homes even more desirable, driving up the prices — and developer profits, all funded with your taxpayer dollars.
Terry Lamphier lives in Grass Valley.
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