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Our View: Waiting for the next fire

Fire gutted a historic Nevada City building last week, and most everyone has someone to blame.

The owner of 414 Broad St. pointed to city officials, saying they knew about the danger. A member of the Planning Commission said that panel doesn’t deal with fire danger issues, and they were just following their rules.

And what we’re left with is a historic building in ashes and a neighboring structure with damage.



Assigning blame is easy. Correcting problems is much more difficult. That’s why we should take this opportunity to fix the problems, and ensure this doesn’t happen again.

There’s no dispute that Nevada City is a jewel. People come here because it’s a destination, and the Nevada City Downtown Historic District has contributed immensely to achieving that goal. It deserves our respect.




But there’s a problem when rules are upheld for no other reason than they’re the rules. That’s especially true when, instead of helping the district thrive, they start hurting its residents.

A historic district should recommend and encourage, and if possible help the restoration and maintenance of buildings within its borders. It shouldn’t rule by fiat, dictating ultimatums that mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to property owners.

Let’s be blunt: Every historic building cannot be saved. Some should be demolished. Trying to rehabilitate everything will lead to last week’s sad, and expensive, event.

Few of us have the resources to restore a building at the cost of $1,000 a square foot. It would instead be cheaper to just demolish the building and pay whatever fine the city or historic district imposes.

It’s happened before in similar districts across the nation. No reason why it couldn’t happen here.

So let’s fix the flaws in this system before our historic district is filled with dilapidated buildings no one can afford to rehabilitate.

We can have both a vibrant historic downtown, as well as rules that promote renovated buildings — which, in turn, provide the potential for sales tax revenue — instead of crushing property owners with onerous regulations.

There must be wiggle room at the Planning Commission. Otherwise we’ll keep having fires — literal and figurative — in one of the county’s most cherished spots.

Abiding by the existing rules can lead anyone to pull out their hair, especially when official decisions appear arbitrary and capricious. For example, there are Christmas lights strung over Commercial Street. Not exactly keeping with the Victorian aesthetic.

Obviously, the rules can be bent. Just look at the Griggs Building and the new KVMR building. These are examples of new structures augmenting a historic area, not sullying it. The Powell House and Sopa Thai prove that restoration is possible and in many cases preferred.

But it shouldn’t be the only way, especially when we’re talking about hundreds, if not millions, of dollars.

Codifying some leeway would go a long way, as would a bit more open-mindedness from those with power over these projects. When a building owner says officials knew about the fire risk and that police even had a key to the place because of homeless issues, we’ve got a problem.

That’s not to say that a property owner can pass off a key and wipe their hands of responsibility. That’s not how this should work.

There must be accountability from the City Council, which installs the city manager, the Planning Commission and has oversight over all city departments. Property owners must also accept responsibility. This is a historic district, after all. There are rules.

The problem we seem to have right now is the rules either aren’t working, or they’re not being followed. Either way, we’re not getting the desired results.

The last thing we need is more of the blame game, with various people pointing out who was at fault and no action being taken.

Let’s figure out what we need. Is it new rules or a better interpretation of them? Do we need more laxity in existing rules or more conversation between commission and building owner?

We need to figure it out. Otherwise, we’re just waiting for the next fire.

The weekly Our View editorial represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com


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