The Union roundtable: Lisa Swarthout |

The Union roundtable: Lisa Swarthout

Lisa Swarthout
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Tell us a little bit about your personal background.

I partially grew up here. I was born in Sacramento, my family moved here in the late 70s and I started high school at Nevada Union and graduated in 1980. Left Grass Valley for awhile, went away to college and graduated from California State University, Chico, in 1985. Then after I finished school I got a job down in the Bay Area, San Francisco, for about four years. I moved back to Grass Valley in 1989. Fifteen years ago today I opened my business, which is Mill Street Clothing Co. on Mill Street in downtown Grass Valley, 477-6404.

The reason my family moved here in the ’70s was because my parents purchased Stucki Jewelers from Dan Stucki, who was the owner at the time. They owned and operated – they still do own and operate – that business since 1977.

And they won the Gold Country Senior Softball league championship.

Yes, my father is the king of softball.

Anyway, after living out of the area for about nine years, I decided that I wanted to move back here. Even though I lived away, I always considered Grass Valley to be my home. I was married in 1988 – my husband is originally from the Bay Area, grew up in Marin County – and we both moved here. He worked in Sacramento and commuted, and I opened my store in 1989.

In between that time and now, I’ve worked in my family’s business – I’m still somewhat involved with Stucki Jewelers, not on a day-to-day basis, but in some of the corporate decisions that get made.

How did you get involved in retail?

When you grow up in it, it’s kind of second nature. When I was young and my parents both worked in the jewelry business in Sacramento for a chain, I started working Christmases there when I was 12 years old. My parents bought the store when I was 14. I was the lucky kid in school – I didn’t have to do fast food or babysit to make extra money; I got to work in the jewelry store.

I grew up in it and learned the business. My first job out of college, I went into the corporate world and I worked for the national marketing division of IBM in the Bay Area. I didn’t last very long; I didn’t like that corporate culture, it wasn’t enough people activity.

I went to work for Nordstrom down in the Bay Area for about eight months as a salesperson and was promoted to department manager. I did that for a while and decided that I wanted to have a personal life, because when you work for them you work ten twelve hours a day, seven days a week. I quit and got married and looked at my options. I worked in the hotel business for a short time in sales. And I really liked that, the people part of it. I like to be in contact with people. I’m not good sitting behind a desk all day.

Tell us a little bit about your political background.

I moved back here in 1989. The city had just gone through some turmoil at that point. I had never really been involved in politics. There was about a three-year period when I didn’t come home very often ” probably from 1986 through the end of 1988 – and I remember coming home one weekend and seeing that they had cut all those trees down where it is now Pine Creek Shopping Center.

It used to be a hill.

Yes, it was a beautiful hill covered in pine trees. When you don’t’ live here and you’re young and really self-centered, you don’t really have a consciousness of that sort of thing. So I came back in 1989, and one of the ways I was able to open my business was J. C. Penney’s had left the downtown area, and the people who were in the location that I was ” which was Breur’s Clothing – they took the Penney’s building over, which opened up the space that I opened up my original store in.

When the Pine Creek Center came here, it took some businesses away from the downtown area, so there were some vacancies, and downtown wasn’t the healthiest it’s ever been. I decided for me there was no choice. I wanted to be in downtown Grass Valley, my family had done business there for a long time, and I felt I could be successful there.

Then I ran for the board for the Chamber of Commerce, right when I moved back up here, and was elected. I got involved with some community things through that. And after they had the big Pine Creek debacle up here, the City Council was recalled, they got new council people, they got new Planning Commissioners.

They decided to form what they called the Development Review Board, which reviewed the aesthetics of all of the projects. There was an opening on that in 1990 and I put my name in. They wanted somebody from downtown, so I got appointed. And that was my first kind of experience in politics.

In the early ’90s, there was very little going on here, so we weren’t making a lot of decisions. In the three years I was there, we didn’t do a lot because there wasn’t a lot going on in Grass Valley. My term was up I think in ’92. I reapplied but didn’t get reappointed because I had a difference of opinion with one of the council people on a project so – that’s politics. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t.

I stayed involved. I’ve been involved with the Grass Valley Downtown Association ever since I’ve been back here, doing different committee work. Then in 1995 there were several openings on the Planning commission and I was encouraged by one of the council people to apply. I was appointed to the Planning Commission in 1995. I’ve been appointed twice since then for three total.

And you have run for council before?

In 1998 and in 2002.

What is it that spurs you to run for the council?

The Planning Commission responsibility is that you regulate the process. You’re there to make decisions on rules that are already made. My contention for wanting to be on the City Council is to be in a position to actually make the rules. I feel that it’s important to go to that next step and be in the position where you can make some changes. As a Planning Commissioner, you use the tools that they have, and sometimes the tools aren’t that great.

Has it been frustrating on occasion to have the Planning Commission make a decision and see it go a different direction on the council?

That can sometimes be frustrating and that’s part of the political process. You realize you’re not the final decision on anything that you decide.

What percentage of Planning Commission decisions are reversed by the City Council?

In my nine years on the Planning Commission, I can recall three hearings that have been reversed – there are not that many. And there’s not that many appeals. The process goes pretty smoothly. But every once in awhile someone comes along who doesn’t like the decision – whether it be – actually the decisions that we’ve made, with the exception of the last appeal that was just filed, they’ve all been appealed by the applicants and not by the public.

You’re seeking to join the council at a very crucial time, foremost being the four major housing projects seeking city annexation. One of the other council candidates, Dean Williams, has pledged to approve no more than one of the projects, if any. One of the members of our Reader Circle submitted a question: “I’m interested in the City Council candidates’ position on the proposed developments.”

It’s an interesting process, and having sat on the Planning Commission for the last nine years I’ve seen a lot of how the process works. The city right now is undergoing an economic study, a feasibility study, looking at all four of these projects cumulatively rather than individually. The preliminary study has been issued, but I’m not sure when the final study is going to be done – sometime probably this fall, would be my guess.

The point is that until the applicants actually come in with concrete plans for what they want to do, that shows the impacts to the community, you can’t say whether you’re going to approve one or four or none. We might look at the projects individually and say this doesn’t meet the intent of the General Plan of Grass Valley and we’re not going approve any of that. So there is not enough information that’s come forward from the development of these projects to offer up . . . I know that sounds kind of like a weasely way of getting out of answering the question, but . . .

What’s the capacity, though? Aren’t there a number of homes that you can only do a year?

There’s nothing concrete that’s been decided on how they’re going to process these applications. There are no development standards that have been set for them yet. There are no growth rates that have been set for them yet. The city hasn’t really made any decisions on these projects.

But how does it fit into the General Plan?

It does exceed the General Plan. All of the projects would require a General Plan amendment.

How do you feel about that?

You have to take your General Plan amendments very seriously. You have to look at them and say, does this fit with the goals that we’ve set forward in the city of Grass Valley? One of the issues that is really important that people don’t understand is that the state mandates your housing regulations here, i.e., they have to have a certain amount of housing built every year to meet the growing demands of the state of California. That is legislated by the state. And the city has no control over what those numbers are.

There is an independent organization, I believe through Sierra Economic Development District, that comes up with those numbers. So there are representatives from our community and from other regions that decide, OK, Nevada County’s going to get X amount. And then they break it out that the county’s going to have X amount and the city of Grass Valley’s going to have X amount.

We just updated our housing element – the Planning Commission was the lead agency for that document to be approved. It went through the process and the public hearings for us, and then it went through the final with the City Council and it was approved unanimously. I believe the number is 1,456 new homes in the city of Grass Valley by the year 2008.

Yuba City just annexed – within the last five years – over a thousand homes into the city. It was property that was in Sutter County and they brought them into the city so they would have better control over how those areas were infilled and how they grew.

From a voter’s point of view, from what you’ve said so far I have no understanding on how you feel about growth.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve become a community that has been divided between being no-growth and pro-growth. Because there is so much in the middle of that. My opinion on growth is that there is an inevitability that the community is going to grow, and I want to make sure the city of Grass Valley does everything that they can to protect the existing environment that they have here.

But if we don’t look at some of this growth and how we’re going to incorporate it into the city, it’s going to occur in the county, and then the city has no control over it. When development occurs, the developer has to pay their fair share of the impact they are going to create on the existing infrastructure. For example, when you build a house in the county or you build a subdivision in the county, they pay regional mitigation, transportation fees, which is money that goes toward fixing Highway 49 and some of those larger transportation issues. But it doesn’t pay anything into the city of Grass Valley, to pay for that stoplight that needs to go in next to the post office.

That’s why a lot of developers are paying for the same stoplight that never gets built.

Well, that’s a whole other issue. But if we don’t allow some of that growth to occur in the city of Grass Valley, it will happen in the county and we’ll get nothing except the impacts. Grass Valley – whether you look at it as a benefit or you look at it as a detriment – is kind of the center of the community economically. We have the shops, we have the banks, we have the gas stations, we have the schools, the public facilities that people use.

So while you might live on the outskirts of town or in Alta Sierra or Cedar Ridge, you come into Grass Valley to do what you need to do – go to the grocery store, bank, etc. You have an impact on what happens in Grass Valley. Yet your development, your coming here, didn’t pay anything to cover those impacts.

From a businessperson’s point of view, that’s good, because we need that kind of stimulus for our businesses to be successful in Grass Valley. We could never survive just on the 12,000 people who live within the city limits of Grass Valley. The question is how do you temper the exterior growth with what you have occurring in your existing city limits? And it’s a really tough question.

One of the issues the city needs to look at before they start annexing these projects is the infill prospects in the city of Grass Valley. Let’s really look at where we have potential to grow within our existing city limits and have a more realistic picture of what is going to occur within our own city limits and say, do we accept this external growth now or do we wait?

There are so many unanswered questions, because we don’t know what the impacts of these developments are going to be until they actually bring them to the city and say this is what we want to do. There are four development proposals going around. Not one of them has gone through public hearings.

They’ve had workshops, right?

They’ve had some workshops to introduce their projects to the public, but not one of them has brought their plans to the city of Grass Valley and said this is what we want to do here.

Is there a schedule for that to happen or is that just floating out there

The city is waiting for the economic study to be done to try and put these people on a schedule. The City Council a few months ago did approve the Bear River Mill site to go through an environmental impact report. The thing that people don’t understand is that when the environmental impact report comes back, it might call for mitigations that are so expensive that it would make it nearly impossible for those developments to be built. So just because they’re going through the process doesn’t mean that they’re going to be approved.

What happened then with Chapa-de Medical Clinic proposal? They fell under that two-second-delay rule, right?

What happened with Chapa-de was that their traffic study was done based upon their existing facility down in Auburn rather than actual numbers of what should have been used to do a medical office here. They actually got approved through the Planning Commission process – I voted against that project – and then it was appealed, I believe, by a member of the City Council.

The city ended up having an independent peer review done of their traffic study and they found it to be inadequate, so it kind of made the whole project just go away at that point. They do have a proposal to come back, they’ve gone through one development review committee meeting. But that was probably eight months ago, and I haven’t seen them since, so I’m not sure . . .

So basically you don’t have any opinion on the four projects?

Well, I have personal opinions on them. Traffic is going to be a huge issue and how they’re going to mitigate not having any impacts on our existing facilities. I don’t believe that they will be able to mitigate all of their impacts to less than a significant level. So would I be in favor of seeing those projects come forward without the proper mitigations? Absolutely not.

Looking at projects in the past, not all of them in Grass Valley, there seems to be a trend of saying, we can’t build it with this sort of traffic mitigation, so it’s excused.

If I am elected to the City Council, my stand on these things will be that you need to be able to mitigate your impacts to a less than significant level in order for us to approve your projects. I’m not going to be giving special treatment to somebody because the development might be good for the business community or good for the development community. They need to show they can build their projects and that it won’t change the existing character or the existing problems we have in Grass Valley.

Let’s talk about an adjunct to this, workforce housing, affordable housing. How do you feel about making sure that’s included?

The only way we’re going to actually get any workforce or affordable housing in this community is for government to participate. And I’ve been an advocate of that ever since I’ve been involved in politics in this community. A lot of the other government people disagree with me wholeheartedly, but I think they’ve proven that with the cost of housing in this community and the cost of infrastructure and the cost of construction that you cannot build affordable workforce housing without a relief of some of those, or one or more of those things.

So what are some creative ideas in which the government could get involved in helping out?

There’s money available for communities to put in the infrastructure, for housing developments, for small little housing developments, such as maybe doing the road systems or looking at the fees. Not lessening the fees; everybody has to pay the fees. But finding ways to come up with money to pay those fees. One of the things that the city has done is put a housing set-aside on some of their new housing projects.

Do you know what the average profit is for a developer on a home?

Most people who build homes, they have a standard 15 or 20 percent profit and overhead that they build into the cost of their home. That’s an average.

But it’s not about that. As a businessperson, I would never suggest that a developer come in here and build housing for his cost of doing it. That is not the way we’re going to get affordable housing. There needs to be cooperation between the development community, between our community and the people who live here and between government to help provide for it. The city has put together a workforce housing task force. They have some recommendations. There is a member of the Planning Commission and a member of the City Council who are on it.

The city is looking at some possibilities, but until the governments – the counties and the cities – determine that they are really going to be committed to workforce housing, meaning they’re going to put some money up for it, it’s not going to happen. That is just a reality.

We’ve been talking about this for many years, and there’s been a lot of low income housing, such as all the apartments that have been approved, but those are all done through the process. The participation of the city has not been financial.

Maybe some incentives for business people who are impacted by the lack of workforce housing would be good to see as well. If somebody wants to do something for their employees, they could build apartments above retail space or office space, for instance.

And that’s the kind of thinking that we need to use in Grass Valley if we’re going to get some workforce or affordable housing. But right now there’s nothing in our zoning ordinance that would allow for you to do that. The city is in the process of updating their zoning ordinance, but that’s the kind of creativity that the city needs to embrace to get workforce housing.

We approved a project over on South Auburn Street – the village at South Auburn Street – last year, and part of that is retail on the ground level and some loft space up above, and it’s got some duplexes. That’s kind of the new smart growth, which I know you’re familiar with now.

I’m not a big proponent of using the buzzwords for development today. In my view it’s just common sense – you don’t allow new development to occur in an already overly impacted community. But you need to fix the problems. The solution is not to say we’re just not going to do anything else, we’re just not going to let anybody else come here. Because there has been very little development in the city of Grass Valley in the last 10 years.

I mean, if you look at the overall picture, there hasn’t been that much, but the traffic in Grass Valley has increased incredibly because of the unincorporated areas, because of all the growth that’s occurred outside our community. Plus people have less time today, so they shop local rather than going down the hill, which is a good thing for our community. And unfortunately, communities depend upon sales tax. Sixty percent of the city’s budget comes through sales tax.

What about the Brunswick Basin? We’re confronted with the nightmare of traffic gridlock at certain times of the day.

The city’s in the process right now of annexing the Glenbrook Basin, which was part of the agreement that they made in the ’70s when they gave sewer to the city. They just annexed where Longs and Jim Keil Chevrolet are.

But one of the things that the city has done, for example, the Big One Appliance, which is being built up on the hillside behind Knight’s Paint – one of the requirements is that they are putting in another left-hand turn lane there. We made the developer have to do that. So that should help to alleviate some of that stacking that comes on the freeway when you get off.

The Nevada County Transportation Commission has a whole Glenbrook plan of doing traffic improvements. But the only way you pay for traffic improvements is by developer fees, so there has to be some development that will occur to pay.

The main thing is to make sure you do the traffic improvements as the development is occurring. That was one of the conditions we placed upon Big One was that that turn lane had to be in and functional before they could open. So a lot of times they just collect the money and they build it whenever. At the Planning Commission it was really important to make sure that traffic improvement was done before they were allowed to open.

Let’s segue a little bit to the subject of drugs, particularly methamphetamine, and the crime it brings. Your thoughts about what the council might be able to do to help?

Fully funding our law enforcement is very important in our community. Unfortunately, Grass Valley, because it’s the center of our community – it has all the affordable housing, it has the schools, it has a lot of the low income housing – that those types of problems are drawn into those areas. If you talk to our Grass Valley police they will cite specific areas where it is a problem.

Having good law enforcement is one way. Having good treatment programs for people, which unfortunately doesn’t fall within the purview of the city of Grass Valley – we don’t deal with health and human services, that all goes through out county. But being supportive of our county fully funding whatever programs are available to them so that people who do have drug problems who want help can get that kind of help.

The city does not make policy in regard to drug treatment, because it does go through the county. We don’t fund a health and human services department. But we certainly need to work in cooperation with our county to make sure those programs are in place for people who do seek help.

And educating people. . . One of the things that wasn’t very popular a few years ago is when the city passed the Truancy Act, and I fully supported that, because if you should be in school, you should be in school. I was appalled at some of the parents that got up there and said, don’t hassle our kids if they’re walking the streets of Grass Valley during school times. I can remember getting in trouble if you cut school when you were a kid, and it’s important that kids are in school. It seems to have worked well; we’ve cut down on some of the problems that we have during the day with the police having the ability to take them back to school, if they should be in school.

Fire is a big concern up here where we live. How do you feel about banning fireworks sales in the city during high-risk periods?

I support the ban on fireworks in the city. As much as it’s fun to have fireworks in front of your house when you’re a kid, the the risk of having a fire started, especially with how dry it’s been this last couple of years. . . .

I watched my father’s house almost burn down during the fire in 1988. I was living in San Francisco at the time and I’m on the phone with him, and I hear this, “Oh no, it’s right there,” click. So I didn’t know if I was going to get a call back in two hours that their house was burned down. And it was a horrible, frightening feeling to know that that fire was that close to their house. They were very lucky, it came right up to the road and dissipated the other way. But losing a home or losing a life to a fire is not worth having fireworks out there.

I realize it is a fundraiser for some of the organizations, and I fully support helping those organizations find other ways to raise money, either having booths at the fair during the fireworks celebration and maybe the community getting together and doing some sort of fundraiser for them to replace that lost funding. Because it is a big revenue source for them. But it is too dangerous, and if you talk to our fire officials in Grass Valley they will tell you the same thing.

Here’s a question from a reader : “If there were one thing that you could change about the current City Council, what would it be?”

Most of the people who sit on the City Council are friends of mine and I respect the job that they do. The one thing that I would change – not just this council but the councils that preceded them over the last 10 years or so – is to have more citizen involvement in the committees and in the functions of things that they do.

For example, I went to a traffic safety meeting maybe a year and a half ago and the traffic safety committee is a great committee, they’re the ones who the citizens can take their issues to for stop signs or safety problems on their street. And they were coming up with a policy, so I went to the committee meeting to see.

There was a large group of people there, probably 40 or 50 citizens, and I saw the committee, and it’s made up of all city people – council people, department heads, transportation commission person – there were no citizens on the committee. That is where the city needs to be more proactive in reaching out before it’s a crisis. Where you have a problem on your street, get some citizen support on there for the things that you want to do to make the changes, it will go a lot smoother. And it’ll give people who are concerned and have issues about how we do things, it will give them a voice in determining what happens. And the more you include people in the process, the better the process is.

People know that you are running for council. Are they coming up to you and calling for you to take action on things?

I’m not really hearing specific things. What I’m hearing is, we think you’ll be really good, we like the things you’ve done in the past, we appreciate the work you’ve done either through the downtown or through some of the nonprofits that you’ve been involved in.

People like their public officials to be approachable, and I’m approachable. People can talk to me. I believe that you talk to everybody, whether you agree with them or not, and you treat everybody the same, whether you’re friends or you just met them or they have a much varying different opinion than you. Everybody gets equal treatment.

A reader asks, “Do you support a multigenerational community center? If so, do you think it should be funded in part by a special bond?”

I do support a multigenerational center. One of the areas in this community that we lack is to have a place for groups to meet, whether it be youth or sports groups or senior community groups. Merging those things together would be very beneficial for this community.

You have youth issues, and in downtown Grass Valley we certainly see sometimes our elder customers are fearful of the kids that come around. They’re unsure of today’s youth, and if you blend those two things together it will just create this understanding between those two groups and take away the fear, which is really important.

About a bond issue, I don’t know. I would probably have to talk to people who are a lot smarter on that issue than I am and get some more feedback from it. I do support and have supported in the past some of the special taxes for creating recreational facilities in the community, so I think that if a bond measure was put together that was equitable and fair and people got on board with it to do something really good for the community, I would support that.

Some of the signs that say “City of Grass Valley” have green tape over the population number. Why?

I will look into that. If I had to guess, it would be that they’re probably in the process of updating them all, and that the ones that have the green tape over them haven’t been updated yet.

What is the population?

I believe the current population is about 12,000. But see it keeps changing as we annex the Glenbrook Basin. For example, the area that we just annexed over where Longs is, we took in the apartment complexes that were up on the hillside there, too. So until we can finish with the Glenbrook annexation, which I believe the plan goes through 2005, it will probably continue to change. But it’s not that we’ve increased the population of the community; we’ve just moved those people from being county people into being city people.

What haven’t we discussed that you feel is particularly important or part of your agenda as a councilperson?

One of the issues I would like to bring up is the fact that there are only three people running for City Council. That would not be my choice – I would much rather be in a race where people had a real choice, and you got up there and you put your message out there and people voted for you because they thought you were the best person, rather than that you were the only person on the ballot.

So I do support the City Council having the election, because it is important for people to be able to vote for you and check your name. Whether they check everybody’s name or just one or two people’s names, it’s really important for the process. And I think this is going to be a very well-turned-out election because of the presidential election, so I’m happy to see that the City Council went forward with that.

It’s important for people to know who I am and to know what I stand for, and know that I will represent all of the citizens of Grass Valley. I don’t belong to any sort of special interest groups, I’m not a community activist, so I don’t have specific issues that I want to make sure come out – I don’t have an agenda going in. My feeling is, you work for the citizens of the city of Grass Valley. I’ve done that for nine years on the Planning Commission, although we are not voted in, we are appointed by the City Council that is elected, so we are a reflection of the beliefs of the City Council.

It’s important that you listen to everybody, and that citizens are not discounted if they have different opinions based on what their beliefs might be. And it’s important to communicate the whole picture to people. Based on the questions that you asked me, there’s a lot of misconceptions out there about what’s happening in our community, that some of these annexations are done deals, that we’re going to get all this growth and all these things are going to happen.

I would like to convey to people that that is not true. All these projects have to go through a process – there will be numerous public hearings, there will be opportunities for groups to come and voice their opinions and participate in workshops and tell the community what they want to have and if the end result is that we don’t want this growth in our community then it won’t happen in my view. I think that the citizens’ opinion weight out over special interests or development.

But don’t you think there was a groundswell against the Pine Creek shopping center at the time? How did that get through?

How it got through is that it got approved through a City Council that was later recalled. And that’s the price that you pay. And there was a lawsuit filed. Ask Mark Johnson that question when he comes in because he was one of the complainants in the lawsuit, he and Howard Levine. But unfortunately they lost. It went through the court system and they lost, and so we got Pine Creek Shopping Center.

But what came out of Pine Creek Shopping Center was a new set of rules on how we were going to do development in Grass Valley. So if you’ll notice, you haven’t seen another Pine Creek Shopping Center come forward in the 16, 17, or 18 years since that was development. We changed the rules of how we do development.

It’s unfortunate that it had to come like that ” that we had to get a development that maybe not everybody in the community was on board with. The real issues around Pine Creek were not necessarily that we were going to have a shopping center there, it was how it was designed.

Like the Holiday Inn you sent back a few times.

We actually made the Holiday Inn Express people do three public workshops that were very well-attended, because the original plan they brought in it didn’t meet the standards of what we wanted to see in Grass Valley. You’re seeing better development that’s happened in our community in the last 15 years – it’s not perfect, the process is not perfect, but it’s better than it used to be.

If I can make one final closing comment, there are really two things that make up a community. The first and foremost is the people who live here, and I’ve lived here off and on for a long time – 26 years now – and I’ve seen some amazing things happen in this community because of the people who live here.

I’ve seen our downtown be at the brink of death and come to what it is today. I’ve seen tragedy in our community where people, no matter what their beliefs were, gathered around the people who had experienced the tragedy, and created this wonderful place. I’m very passionate that people make things happen, things don’t make things happen.

And the other is the aesthetics of our community. If we can continue to move forward in a way where we’re not destroying the aesthetics of what we have here by whatever smart-growth term ” common sense, however you want to look at it ” that Grass Valley will continue to be the wonderful place it always has been.

It hasn’t changed that much since 1977, other than that there are more people here. But people move here and if they want to be involved, they embrace what we have here. Look at our nonprofit organizations, our education, our school sports – I know lots of people that participate in the school sports programs who don’t even have kids in school anymore because they’re so passionate about this community.

I want to see that be maintained, and want to be a part of that as a leader on the City Council.

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