The Union Q&A: Ted Owens, District 5
The Union: Please give us a capsule of your background and how you came to run for county supervisor.
Ted Owens: Basically I grew up in California ” we had some property up in Lake County in a little town called Middletown. I spent a great deal of my childhood there, and then we lived in Novato. But I did go to high school in the East Bay; my dad worked for Bechtel. . . .
. . . After high school I went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I tried to do the city thing after college, and then I ended up moving to the mountains full-time. . . .
Probably around ’96 or ’97, another contractor and myself began to speak about how we had no collective voice to at least speak on particular issues. Not to work an agenda, but to have a voice. . . .
We organized what’s called CATT – Contractors’ Association of Truckee-Tahoe – with a couple of very important elements to the mission statement. The first one was to increase and improve the professionalism within the district. No. 2 was to have a unified voice, and No. 3 was to give back to the community in which we lived through community projects. . . .
So I ended up on the Planning Commission and I found that to be a wonderful opportunity to learn about not just land use, but process. Because it is a very difficult job. . . . Then I ran for council and lost my first time. I ran against two incumbents.
The Union: What year was that?
Owens: That was 2000. And shortly thereafter, actually, I was appointed to the council when council member Bob Drake resigned. And then I ran for election in 2002 and served as mayor, and I’m still there. So collectively, between that and the Planning Commission, I’ve had almost five years of service to the town. . . .
The Union: How would you characterize the relationship between the town of Truckee and the county?
Owens: The town really incorporated for a simple reason, and that was roads. That was the catalyst that really made incorporation successful in 1993. Our roads were not in good shape; they were in a terrible state of disrepair.
Snow removal was something that wasn’t known as a service, it was an occurrence. It’s very difficult for a county to effectively deal with a location like Truckee, being geographically very far away with a completely different environment. . . .
Incorporation had more to do with the feeling that we weren’t getting our fair share. We weren’t being taken care of like we felt we should have been. Right, wrong or indifferent, that was the psyche.
So incorporation occurred, and we’ve had the luxury for the past 10 years to have a very myopic view ” because we have a town council, we have
a town, and we have control over our own destiny. But I don’t think it is a reality. The reality is we are in Nevada County. There are issues that will expand beyond the town boundaries.
The Union: What are some of those issues where, as a resident of Truckee, you are influenced by the county?
Owens: Where we will see it in the future is in development pressure. Truckee is under a great amount of development pressure right now. Our General Plan in 1996 included a development potential reduction of about 50 percent of the old county plan. When that red-hot economy occurred, can you imagine what might have happened if that had not been done? It could have been incredible. We put developers through the wringer up in Truckee, a very demanding process in terms of quality and community benefit.
The Union: That would not include the Martis Valley project, would it?
Owens: No.. . .The interesting thing with the Martis Valley Community Plan is traffic mitigations. To support that level of development, there are 13 mitigations, movements, traffic improvements, and eight of those 13 are in my town. And that doesn’t just mean we’re going to throw up traffic lights because that solves your problem. My community has a right to aesthetic and quality solutions to those problems if the impacts are derived in Placer County.
Which leads me to regional collaboration. I’ve solved a few things – I tackled an air quality issue up there by working with Rex Bloomfield, the Fifth District supervisor in Placer County.
The irony is, because of the county line, we have an air basin known as the Truckee air basin. And, of course, you’re trying to meet state and federal air quality standards. . . .
We had a different air-quality standards ordinance in Placer County than we had in Truckee. . . .
What Rex and I agreed to do was where Truckee standards and our adopted air quality management plan in 1999 is stronger than yours, you’ll meet those standards. And where yours are stronger than ours, we’ll meet those. And we’ll increase our rebate program to make it more affordable
for people to change out their wood stoves.
I was naïve; I thought it would take six months to do this. How hard can this be? It took two years. But it got done because I reached out to another elected official, in another jurisdiction, and said, “Hey, we have something here that could benefit both of us.”
The Union: How much were those wood stoves contributing to air quality problems?
Owens: Going off memory, probably about 15 percent. Caltrans, which runs right through all of that, and their road-sanding practices are about 80 percent of our problem. Coming down the Donner Summit, very often it looks like Pigpen from the Peanuts strip must be living in Truckee, because it’s a big dust cloud. They put the sand down when they need it, but that sand gets ground into a very fine, unrestrained road dust that ends up in the air.
But I felt that in terms of strategy on how to deal with this problem, which I view as a health issue, we’ve got to do what we can do in our own house before we start kicking somebody in the shin about what they’re doing, i.e. Caltrans. . . .
And that leads into why I’m running. I have a very unique opportunity to serve District 5. First off, I’ll talk about Truckee, because Truckee is 83 percent of the fifth district in terms of voter population. Because I’ve had the experience both as a planning commissioner and as a town council member, and I have a very good relationship with that government there, that I’m going to be very instrumental in bringing Truckee back into the fold of Nevada County. . . .
We’ve settled a lot of our differences for the past 10 years with lawyers, and that’s pretty expensive. Both parties are guilty of that because we didn’t have the relationship and kind of seceded from the union if you will ” a lot of bitterness. But that’s gone away.
We’d better become concerned with county issues, because there’s a great deal of unincorporated land that surrounds the town of Truckee. And just because we are tough on developers and tighten the screws on them and what have you ” very demanding ” that can often spill over into the unincorporated areas. . . .
The Union: Are there other developments that may look for annexation to Truckee?
Owens: I’d be predicting the future, but I would say it’s in the future. Sooner or later, we will see that type of development pressure that would lead
to annexations. We certainly are planning for it in our General Plan update process right now.
The Union: You would look at that probably as a positive or negative – because at least it allow the town to have more control over those projects.
Owens: Precisely. That lends itself to the positive side for me. You have to recognize that these things will happen, and you’ve got to be in a position to exercise some level of control. The public deserves to have some say. If we’re not engaged in Nevada County as a governmental agency and body, then you could lose that game before it even begins. . . .
The Union: You have been dealing up there with a lot of issues that are on the table here right now, such as affordable housing.
Owens: We have been tackling the affordable housing issue in the town of Truckee. We’ve done a good job, and in fact we met our state-mandated targets in the first round. The new targets, however, are going to be more challenging. . . .
Sometimes when you have development pressure, it opens opportunity to solve problems. For example, last night we approved the largest development project in the history of the town of Truckee, Gray’s Crossing. One of the community benefits of that project is affordable housing. And we obtained more than we ever dreamed from that developer.
That project has deed-restricted units for sale, restricted to locals. They’ve set up buyer financing programs. There are rental units, there is employee housing, there are town-home-style projects, much of it restricted. In the affordable category, we achieved 225 units ” on one project ” being subsidized by the higher end single-family lots that they’re going to sell.
So we’ve been able to accomplish some of our goals through those means. The other means are block grants, tax incentives, and that would require partnering with the private sector – developers that build those types of structures. For benefit, obviously. And so we’ve gotten those on the
ground, all workforce-restricted in terms of income, things of that nature. . . .
This is a statewide problem, not necessarily a Truckee or Nevada County problem. For some reason, people don’t like to talk about the real fact of the matter, which is that a lot of people are moving to California every year and we can’t keep up with the housing demand. Not even by half.
Part of that has to do with a Legislature that, in my view, makes it virtually impossible to put affordable housing on the ground. We continually have
roadblocks ” workers’ compensation, general liability. Increasing the warranty for a home builder to 10 years seemed like a good consumerism effort, but it just threw the insurance industry into a tailspin. Now insurance is so hugely expensive that affordable housing is a dream. . . .
The Union: How do you assuage the fears of people in your district that you’re a contractor and . . .
Owens: . . . and that’s OK? You know, that’s a personal opinion that people have. I don’t believe contractors are bad people. I am not a developer. First off, you have to understand there’s a difference between a developer and a builder. I build homes for people, that’s what I do. I don’t build resorts and I don’t build golf courses and strip malls. I don’t build any of that. Most builders don’t.
And in terms of community service, it has been very expensive for me to serve my community, because I can’t take advantage of the development pressure in the community. I can’t strike the kinds of relationships where I might be able to build for them. I’ve taken myself out of that picture to serve my community. And how is that bad? That’s an incredible sacrifice.
The Union: . . .Is Truckee destined to be like a Colorado resort town?
Owens: . . . I wrote an editorial piece called the “Aspenization of Truckee” five or six years ago because it was my concern. I don’t know if I thought I would be prophetic with it ” I thought that was 15 years down the road, and it happened much faster than that.
Yes, I’m concerned about becoming like Colorado. . . . The kinds of folks that tend to visit the fifth district – the Truckee-Tahoe area – are a lot different than they used to be. When I was a kid, my dad was an outdoor enthusiast. Still is. We hunted, we fished, backpacked and we skied. And that’s what you did.
Now stop to consider that in the mid-’80s, mountain bikes were a new concept. Snowboards hadn’t even come out yet. You start thinking about all the different activities that are now available that didn’t exist 15 or 18 years ago. There’s a lot more for people to do, and it brings a completely different breed of cat up to the mountains now than traditionally.
The Union: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about Truckee, but we want to have time to hear about your vision for the county as a whole.
Owens: And I’m glad you brought that up. Truckee just happens to be 83 percent of the district. One of the greatest experiences I’ve had in the past six or eight months is meeting the folks down in Washington. Before I came here today, I had coffee with Norm and Evelyn up on the Ridge because they called me. And I’ve really enjoyed meeting the folks down here. And I fully intend to continue to do that.
I was very dismayed when the potluck was canceled in Washington, because I make a pretty mean spaghetti sauce, and feel I can compete. But I will go out of my way to spend time on this side of the hill – and I don’t mean just breezing through town. . . .
The Union: One of the issues on this side would be the Yuba River, including possible federal Wild and Scenic protection.
Owens: We have a wonderful organization up in our neck of the woods called the Truckee River Watershed Council that I support strongly. And the
reason I support it is because it’s a group of local people that have organized to work out issues having to do with our watershed. I always believe that local control is far superior to control from elsewhere, Washington, D.C. Let’s face it – you don’t run into those folks at the Safeway. I believe that supervisors and city council members are accessible people. And I think it’s much more important to maintain that level of control at the local
The Union: Any thoughts on forest practices in the Tahoe National Forest?
Owens: The San Bernardino fires are a good example of what we’re saddled with in California. This is something I discussed this morning with some folks up off Highway 20 because they’re very concerned about the fire danger in the area in which they live. In California, I’ve read that our forests grow at a rate of about 8 billion board feet per year, and our logging is limited to 164 million board feet per year. So if you had a lawn, and that were crabgrass, you’re losing that battle.
This is a concern that I have. Because our fire suppression methodology for the past 100 years has created that which we have today. Yet logging practices of the past were certainly no great shakes. We’ve learned a lot as we’ve moved through the past 100 years. Most people don’t realize that that whole Truckee-Tahoe area is all second and third growth. The entire Tahoe Basin was completely denuded by 1893. Not a tree standing.
Bad, that’s bad.
But if we’re going to manage our forests properly, we need from a governmental perspective to look to the logging industry as a partner in how to accomplish that goal. They’re not evil. What is evil is a catastrophic fire that occurs, because that will take 100 or 125 years for nature to be able to put that back together. They will burn so hot they do damage to the soil. It’s incredible what can happen. . . .
There’s a balance that has to occur. You can’t say you’re for the environment and put your head in the sand because you’re still taking from somebody else’s backyard – that’s wrong. You’ve got to be able to balance it. . . .
The Union: You were talking about your vision for the county, and we got sidetracked.
Owens: Let’s go there, because one of the things that will help Nevada County tremendously ” and I may be naïve in this – is regional solutions to common problems. . . .
One of the things I’ve been doing a little research on – I haven’t got it put together yet in my mind, but I’m fascinated with the concept – is a Tri-Cities Commission that works with the Board of Supervisors on common good for Nevada County, at the direction of and at the pleasure of the board. We have our breakfast meetings and we keep in touch, and that’s good and well and dandy. But I believe we can organize other elected officials representing these three towns and work on how can we solve some of our county-wide problems instead of trying maintain this independence, where we’re going off in four different directions.. . .
The Union: Still, your district is different in many ways from the others in the county, such as a Hispanic population of about 17 percent.
Owens: And it is growing. But where it’s going to grow, that’s a question we’ve been struggling with on the affordable housing issue. We have had limited success in engaging the Hispanic community in what’s going on in Truckee. We do publish our newsletters in Spanish and in English; we have had some of the folks attend our General Plan update meetings or workshops occasionally. But we haven’t broken the barrier down; we haven’t been able to be successful at that, and that’s a difficult thing. It may be more to do with where they come from, and how they grew up, and what their perception of government is. . . .
The Union: We’ve had a big methamphetamine problem in west county. Do you have crime issues in Truckee?
Owens: I would have answered differently before the Truckee P.D. went into effect. We do have some of those issues. We’ve had some successes with the police department in that regard. Truckee, being a way stop between Reno and Sacramento, with I-80 as a drug-trafficking artery, is a concern. We have some gang issues. They’re kind of in the wanna-be category, but that is a concern and not popular in our area. We see a little bit more tagging than we used to have.
The Union: We’re getting near the end of our session. Do you have any issues we haven’t covered that you feel are important for readers to know
Owens: I do. I was very pleased that that there has been the sense from all of the candidates that working together was going to be the solution for Nevada County. I wholeheartedly agree with that. Collaborative thinking, consensus-building, is a much superior model for success than drawing a line in the sand.
I pride myself on always trying to be fair, listening to all sides and trying to find the solution. I remember we had an issue once, with the contractors’ association. They were very upset with me because we got about 95 percent of what they wanted, and they thought I failed miserably.
That’s not realistic in life.
So the key for Nevada County is a board that will work together, establish a professional code of conduct, always be respectful of each other ” hard on the issues, soft on the people ” and not making it personal. There has been a lot of that down here, and I don’t have any desire to engage in that, and I’m not going to.
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This letter is in response to Elias Funez’s excellent article on the relationship between the Nevada County Airport, Cal Fire and the Loma Rica development.