The Union’s Q&A: Steve Cottrell, Nevada City Council
The Union: Tell us a little about your background and how you came to be on the City Council.
Steve Cottrell: I was born in San Francisco, and raised in Arcata. I went off as a 17-year-old to conquer the world and be a baseball player. It didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped, but in the process I met a lot of my childhood heroes, and a lot of people don’t have that opportunity.
I wound up in Nevada City for the first time on a visit when I took a wrong turn on Highway 49 and came down Coyote Street instead of on the freeway, and saw the community. It was the first time I’d ever been here. I dropped into the National Hotel and had a cold beer, and three years later wound up as the night bartender at the National Hotel.
It took awhile – I was married at the time, and we would come to Nevada City from Humboldt County where I was living. And finally in 1977 the opportunity presented itself for full-time employment for my wife and I, and we moved to Nevada City in 1977.
In 1979, I was sitting at home reading The Union and saw that the county school board had two vacancies, with one in the district that included Nevada City. I had a stepson who was in a special ed program, which is what county schools focus on, so I decided that I would apply for that position and was successful. In 1979, I was initially appointed to the county school board and then stood for election twice ” served six years in total on the county school board, a year as president of that board.
By the early ’80s I was involved with newspapering again, something I had done when I was much younger, and found myself as editor of the Nevada County edition of the Mountain Messenger, an edition that no longer exists. It was a four-page wraparound. There was the Sierra County and Nevada County edition. So I became editor of the Mountain Messenger in Nevada County and spent most of the next several years newspapering in one way or another. The last venture was 1990 to 1991 with the weekly Nevada City News. We published 73 issues before we had to close the doors.
Anyway, after having served six years on the county school board, I got some things accomplished. In fact, as far back as 1981 I initiated the first drug education program in county schools.
It was through the CHEP program – Comprehensive Health Education Plan – and I introduced a resolution at the board meeting one night suggesting that there might be a problem with drug and alcohol abuse among kids in Nevada County. My colleagues agreed with me, and we were able to initiate a $5,000 grant program, which asked each school to please develop a drug and education program appropriate to their school and to each class level. That was the first such program in the county, and I was real proud of that.
As a newspaper editor, I covered, literally, hundreds of public meetings in the 1980s and early 1990s. City council, city Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors, county Planning Commission. You name it, I was there. And in the process I came to the conclusion that I had something to contribute myself, and if the opportunity came up I would run for office, for City Council.
I did have two ill-fated attempts at county supervisor in 1980 and 1984. In 1980, I came in third in a field of four in the primary, and 1984 I came in fourth in a field of four, and realized that my political future rested in volunteerism, which was what the City council is.
I realized that I did not want to be involved in the dynamic of major fund-raising ever again. But I’ve always felt I was a pretty good community volunteer, and that’s what the City Council is. It’s just that you have to go to the voters every four years and ask for the privilege of continuing to be a volunteer.
The Union: You don’t even get the odd meal paid for?
Cottrell: No. Well, In the interest of full disclosure, the first year I was on the council we had a finance committee meeting and there were no rooms left in City Hall. So we went next door to a little restaurant for our meeting. And my bill, with tax, was $5.13. When my tenure as a council member is over, I will give the taxpayers back $5.13.
But so far that’s all it has cost them. I’ve never had the taxpayers pay for me to go to a social event. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. So, no. There’s been no remuneration in 12 years, outside of the one breakfast that was also a finance committee meeting.
First of all, I served on the planning commission in 1991 and early 1992. Having been a community at-large member of the general plan committee in 1983 and 1985, I was one of seven members who developed the general plan and the zoning ordinance the city operates by. So in 1991, there was a vacancy on the Planning Commission and I applied and was appointed. I served on that commission for about 14 months and then was fortunate enough to get elected to the City Council. I ran again in 1996 and was successful, and again in 2000, and I’m giving it one more try.
The Union: Are there any term limits?
Cottrell: There are not. In fact, when I went on the council one of my first issues was to develop term limits for the council. And the city attorney advised me that in the state of California that’s unconstitutional. It’s been tried many times. Voters usually do it – there are usually city initiatives to limit terms, but it has been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme court many times.
The Union: Are you the longest-serving member of the council?
Cottrell: I’m the senior member as we speak, but I’m not the longest-serving in the history of the town. Paul [Matson] at 20 years is the longest serving, Glenda [Zanone] at 15 years is second, and if I am fortunate enough to serve another term, I will become the second-longest serving.
The Union: Could you contrast for us the major issues for Nevada City when you were elected in ’92 and today?
Cottrell: There were four major issues that were on the front burner in 1992, and we eventually took care of all four.
We had to build a new bridge across Deer Creek on South Pine. The bridge had been structurally unsound for years; heavy equipment was not allowed to go across the bridge, so there was no way for fire trucks to cross for protection of the south side of town. That was critical, and that bridge was dedicated in late 1996 or early 1997.
For years, Nevada City had been trying to acquire the Forest Service lot on Commercial Street in order to turn it into additional public parking. We were able to do that, to the cost of about $800,000 by the time it was all done. We built for the Forest Service a building out at Loma Rica because it had to be a revenue-neutral exchange. So we built a building for Tahoe National Forest out at Loma Rica and we developed a public parking lot with over 70 spaces.
The wastewater treatment plant needed some major upgrading. The water quality and discharge at the sewer plant was far below the water quality discharge that the state needed and wanted, and the capacity was strained, to say the least. So we spent some $3 million to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant during the 1990s. And that was a major accomplishment.
The City Hall – we had to either build a new city hall or expand the one that we had. It’s hard for newcomers to realize how bad the conditions were in City Hall. You had to have been in that building to realize how bad it was; it was horrible.
Because of a big increase in sales tax in the late 1990s we were able to set aside enough money to go to bid on remodeling City Hall. That’s been a major accomplishment for the community.
It was completely gutted out and put back together again. The jail was downstairs – it was just terrible – it was so cramped. The entire police department was put in this room.
The Union: Did it retain the same art deco style?
Cottrell: It’s actually art moderne ” that’s a poor man’s art deco. It was very popular during the Depression. The WPA built buildings like that. Art moderne uses the same round forms of art deco.
So it was a very small City Hall with a large garage and shed in the back that was removed. And as the marker on City Hall indicates, what we did was complete in December 2000 the work that was started in the 1930s.
The Union: So those were the four major accomplishments.
Cottrell: A fifth major thing was to finally build a firehouse on the south side of town. The Providence Mine firehouse was a major goal of city councils beginning in the early 1990s. So in the 12 years, I would say that those five items were all on the front burner when I came on the council in 1992 and now 12 years later those projects have all been completed.
The Union: So are there equivalents today that need to be done in the next 12 years?
Cottrell: Not with buildings. The next important expenditure for Nevada City are the streets and sidewalks and the sewer and water. We have the buildings now. We have a firehouse that will serve for decades. We have a City Hall that will serve for decades.
We have a sewer plant that is going to require some more upgrading, but that’s in pretty good condition. In fact, it is going to require a lot of upgrading, almost $4 million – but it handles the capacity. The major money that will be spent in the future, certainly in the next decade, the average citizen won’t see a lot of that. It won’t be fancy buildings; it’s going to be better sewer lines, better water, raising the height of the storage tanks of the water in order to create greater water pressure. There are areas in town where the water pressure is poor, and by raising the tanks the city engineer believes we can create additional water flow.
The Union: Raising by putting at a higher location, or raising on stilts or something?
Cottrell: Literally raising it in place. That will actually increase the water pressure. There are four large tanks that surround Nevada City, and by raising those four tanks we can give the folks a little better water pressure.
When I get up in the morning – I live in a four-plex – I listen to hear if any of my neighbors are running water, because if they are I just go back to bed, because I don’t need to go in the shower yet. There are a lot of pockets in Nevada City where that’s common.
The Union: How about water lines?
Cottrell: A lot of those may need to be replaced; certainly sewer lines, too.
The Union: How old would you say some of those are?
Cottrell: Most of the 19th century sewer line has been removed, but in my 12 years on the council we have removed wooden sewer lines, old square redwood sewer lines. But there still is some 19th-century sewer line that’s got to be removed.
The difficulty in Nevada City is not the plant capacity. It is the ability to get the sewage to the plant. It’s the delivery system that needs the work. The sewer plant can handle the capacity. In fact, if there’s not a heavy rainstorm, the sewer plant operates at about 60 percent capacity. But the difficulty is getting the effluent there to have it processed.
The Union: You mentioned the $4 million expense for upgrading ” is that just for the plant?
Cottrell: I had a conversation with the city engineer a few months ago. Let’s look at the entire infrastructure in Nevada City. Just pipes, not the sewer plant, but the sewer and water pipe. What would it cost to bring the delivery system up to a level that would allow for the growth that’s reflected in our sphere of influence? The amount is certainly over $5 million.
The Union: How much growth would that be?
Cottrell: Our zoning ordinance calls for an eventual population of 6,000 in our five-year sphere of influence, including outside of Nevada City. Nevada City’s population could double to 6,000. So my question of the city engineer was, can we deliver the services to the people if that were to happen? His answer is yes ” from an engineering standpoint, he can get the sewage to the sewer plant and the water to the people. But the issue is not money. The issue is politics.
The Union: Where does the politics come in?
Cottrell: Whether Nevada City wants to expand is a political question. Do the citizens of Nevada City want Nevada City to stay at 3,000 over the next 10 years? If they do, then that means Nevada City will probably grow one house at a time, very slowly, as we do now. Last year, roughly a half-dozen new homes were built in Nevada City.
The Union: And in that case, the tax burden will go up, right?
Cottrell: Oh, absolutely, they’ll have to pay. And that’s a fundamental decision that citizens in Nevada City are going to have to make, and they’re going to have to make fairly soon. If it’s the will of the community to stay at 3,000 and protect the borders, so to speak, then those 3,000 people are going to have to spend an awful lot of money to the bring services up to the level that they’re going to need to be.
An example is the $4 million estimated cost of the wastewater treatment plant upgrade. Right now, our discharge is above the state water quality standards. However, they are raising the standards. And in order to meet the next standards, the estimate is $4 million, and the state would probably pay half of it. So the citizens may have to pay $2 million in order to upgrade the plant.
It’s also going to be a huge impact to Grass Valley and to small towns all over California. And we have a state-of-the-art sewer plant. We have small towns from all over the west come to Nevada City to take a look at our sewer plant, because it is so good. And it’s new. And now the state has come in with new discharge standards where it may be fine in another state but it isn’t going to work in California.
So the taxpayers could wind up spending $2 million of the $4 million, and how we would raise that money? It will probably be an increase in the monthly sewer bill.
The Union: What’s your feeling about what the residents want?
Cottrell: I have a feeling that the majority of residents in Nevada City would like to continue to see the city grow very slowly. It’s a decision they’re going to have to make here in the next four or five years, and we’ll find out when the time comes. But my sense is that annexations will probably be minimal in the next five years. I do not anticipate that Nevada City will annex in five years all of the property that’s reflected in the five-year sphere.
The Union: Where do you come down personally on that issue?
Cottrell: I would like to see us annex property that’s in our five-year sphere. But annexations are at the request of the property owner, not the request of the city. Property owners have to come forward. I would like to see us annex more property primarily because we would have greater control over it. That property could then develop consistent with the city. Right now, a property in the sphere is developed by the county. And while we are given the right of input, the county has veto power.
The Union: Would the Deer Creek Park II project be an example of that?
Cottrell: That would be an example, although I’m not sure if it’s in our five-year sphere, but it’s probably pretty close. Nevertheless, it is a good example of growth that’s taking place on the periphery of Nevada City that has a huge influence on the town, for which we receive no property tax, no sewer connection fees, and all that sort of thing.
Although the water would not be affected much at all. We have an agreement now where NID provides water for all annexations. But the sewage would be through Nevada City, and for some of the larger projects it’s hard for them to develop without sewage. That’s one of the issues troubling Deer Creek Park.
The Union: What are the other major issues you see?
Cottrell: The No. 1 issue is how, in the face of a town that grows slowly and has a very slow increase in annual income, to keep pace with the demands for the services? That’s going to be particularly difficult if the governor’s proposed budget is approved by the state Legislature. It’s going to have a huge impact on a town like Nevada City.
The city manager has estimated – and we don’t know for certain yet – that if that budget is approved it will cost of tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes, over a $100,000 in road taxes and thousands of dollars in additional small fees that might be retained in Sacramento. His early estimate is that if the governor’s budget is adopted, it could cost Nevada City upwards of $150,000 in the first year. And when you have a $4 million budget, that’s a huge hit.
So the biggest challenge we have is to be able to maintain the level of service we have, much less to increase it. We need more people in public works, we need another police officer, we need City Hall staff member so we can be open at lunch for the citizens ” we can’t even afford to stay open at lunch. And where that money is going to come from is a huge challenge.
The Union: Parking meters?
Cottrell: Well, parking meters go into a restricted account. It’s money to create more parking. Actually, parking meter money now is getting better because of the Commercial Street lot. We’re probably at $80,000 a year in parking meter income.
The Union: Speaking of parking, it’s sometimes pretty darn tough to find a parking space at certain times of day in Nevada City.
Cottrell: That’s good news. I would hate to drive down Broad Street at noon and find parking spaces.
The Union: Does the city need more parking?
Cottrell: I don’t know where that would be. Unlike some communities that tear down buildings to build parking lots, that’s not going to happen in Nevada City. I am unaware of any location right now in Nevada City for additional parking other than perhaps double-decking the parking lot on Spring Street, which I’m not a great booster of, because I think it would be very visible from the freeway.
But there may be a way to camouflage it. You could dig that down a little bit further, and then build another layer on top. It wouldn’t be that ugly.
But it would be very expensive per parking stall. The Commercial Street parking lot was over $10,000 per stall. That’s what it cost. We have, I think, 75 parking stalls, and it cost over $800,000 by the time we were done.
Double-decking the Spring Street lot would cost a lot more than $10,000 apiece. So we are very limited as to where we can build additional parking. But the fact that it’s hard to find a parking space in Nevada City is good, because that means that people are spending money and we’re getting some sales tax.
The Union: Why have you never been chosen mayor by the council?
Cottrell: I’m a centrist, politically. In the years that I’ve been on the council, there have been very liberal majorities and there have been very conservative majorities, and I’ve never been part of either. I would rather be a centrist and serve on the council for another eight years than to sell my soul for that gavel.
It doesn’t matter where you sit at the council table ” you get one vote. The mayor gets one vote, doesn’t get two votes, nor does the mayor have veto power. So my goal is to continue to cast that one vote. Do I think that I have earned that gavel? Yes, I do. But I also have always made it clear that being mayor of Nevada City is not a right of election. It’s an honor and it’s a privilege, it’s not a right. But after 12 years I have earned that privilege.
The Union: Last year in an “Other Voices” guest column in The Union, you publicly raised the issue of vandalism and crime in Nevada City. There
didn’t seem to be a whole lot of response to that.
Cottrell: There was a great deal of response in City Hall. I was advised by key city staffers that I had overstated the issue. I respectfully disagreed. And I think the statistics of accounts of vandalism in Nevada City, and the proliferation of drugs, particularly meth, in Nevada City over the past year validates every word I wrote in that opinion piece.
The Union: If you were to look at crime in Nevada City, would that be up at the top of the list?
Cottrell: Vandalism and drugs. At the risk of micro-managing, I have made a suggestion to both the police chief and the city manager, and it is not a request that has been discarded but it’s one they have not yet supported. Nevada City needs to bite the bullet and spend whatever it takes – based on conversations with the police chief and city manager, we’re probably talking $50,000 to $60,000 – to bring in an undercover police officer, young, who can walk the walk and talk the talk.
Bring him to Nevada City, give him very modest living quarters, and let him begin to infiltrate that element. Find out where the drugs are coming from, be able to give the police a tip-off when a meth lab is set up in somebody’s kitchen in Nevada City. That can be handled in a way by professionals so that when people are apprehended they won’t be able to say, “Oh, I think it’s that new guy hanging out at the park.
This is not new. I have supported hiring an undercover police officer from out of town for six years. That is not disrespect to Keith Royal and the task force that he has. Not at all. But I just think we need to bring in someone very young, from out of town. Every year in Nevada City there are new people coming in. The hangers-on are new. It would be just as easy to bring in some cop from East L.A., 21 years old, and just let him hang out. We would learn much more that way than we are learning presently through the drug task force.
But I’m a lay person, they’re the professionals, and to date they have chosen not to bring in an out of town undercover police officer.
The Union: When you talk about the drug problem, are you separating marijuana from meth?
Cottrell: The use and the sale of meth has expanded greater than marijuana. The use and sale of marijuana in Nevada City is fairly stable. It is meth that is expanding.
The Union: Because people are smoking pot in that pocket park every day of the week, there is an impression that the powers that be in Nevada City don’t care.
Cottrell: I don’t think that’s a fair analysis. There are a lot of people that care. But it goes back to manpower; it goes back to money. There are times in Nevada City when there is only one police officer on duty. We have nine police officers that have to work 24/7. You do the math and you find out there are times, not in the daytime often, but there are times where there is only one police officer on duty.
If we did not have a mutual-exchange backup program with the sheriff’s office, I don’t know what we’d do. You can go to downtown Nevada City on any Friday and Saturday night in the summer, and people may be having an adult beverage or two too many, and there are problems, and you’ll see a sheriff’s car there as well as a Nevada City police car. That’s how we’re able to manage downtown Nevada City, particularly in the summer, is with the support of the sheriff’s office.
So I nothing I say is disrespectful to Keith Royal, because he gives to Nevada City his officers to back up our officers. But in trying to nail down what’s going on with the drugs and the vandalism, we need to bring somebody in from the outside. When some of this vandalism goes on, it’s a hardcore group of a few folks doing it. And they talk. And if we had someone there who had a set of ears listening to that talk, we might be able to cut off some of the vandalism before it occurs.
The Union: Back to the growth issue ” there are critics who say Nevada City isn’t taking on its fair share of responsibility for affordable housing or
Cottrell: I agree.
The Union: What can be done about it?
Cottrell: We can rewrite the zoning ordinance that we just approved and that I voted against. We can bring to the City Council and Planning Commission folks with an open mind that are committed to affordable housing, and that aren’t just going to give it lip service.
I was at a Rotary lunch a couple of weeks ago, and I said it then and I’ll say it again. The proponents of affordable housing in Nevada City who wrote what is now our new housing element, which focuses on inclusionary zoning, created a document that will do for affordable housing in Nevada City what Richard Nixon’s secret plan to end the war in Vietnam did to end the war ” which was nothing. It is a piece of paper that requires affordable housing to be built in conjunction with market-rate housing, but it is triggered at four units or more. So if you build at three units or more, you never have to build the affordable housing. And if single homes are being built, they are not affordable.
There are two elements to the housing element that are disincentives. They are not incentives, they are disincentives. One is that 30 percent of all homes built on property that has been subdivided – well, I’ll give you a hypothetical example. Say you have an acre and a half, and there are no major physical constraints. No steep slopes, none of that. So you can build six homes. Two of those homes, under our ordinance, must be no more than 1,500 square feet, and must be deed-restricted to moderate or lower-income people in perpetuity. Would you loan money for someone to build a house where the appreciation is controlled by the City Council and not by the marketplace?
Let’s say you had enough where you could go 20 homes. Six of those homes must be no more than 1,500 square feet, deed restricted in perpetuity for moderate and low-income. The concept that they’re for moderate and low-income is wonderful. But the deed restriction makes it very difficult to find financing. It is very hard for someone ” where it’s only one or two homes they’re building – to find financing through traditional sources. And so you wind up paying much higher interest rates than you might otherwise pay.
The other aspect of the housing element that is a disincentive is that you can only have 35 units approved in a calendar year – one property owner. Well, we have a couple of folks that own large pieces of land around Nevada City. They should have a right to master-plan their property.
We as a city were involved in acquiring a community block grant to master-plan the Nevada Theatre and Miners Foundry. We went out and got a $30,000 grant to master-plan the Seven Hills business district. There’s a master plan for Gold Flat Industrial Park. There’s a master plan for the Grass Valley Group campus, which goes way beyond the building that they have there.
I grant you, 35 units a year is huge amount in the context of Nevada City. But if you can only approve – not “build”, but “approve” – 35 dwelling units in one year, you are limiting your options as far as creative workforce housing solutions that someone might be able to bring to the Planning Commission, bring to the City Council table. I think you are limiting your ability, your options.
Say you owned a large tract of land outside Nevada City or on the periphery of Nevada City to be annexed, and you could build 80 units, theoretically. That would require three trips to the Planning Commission, three trips to the City Council, per year.
I suggested we change the word “approved” to “built,” and my suggestion fell on deaf ears. I felt that if we could just change that one word, that would give folks who own large tracts of land an ability to master-plan that property and phase in the workforce housing. But when you’re telling them they can only get 35 approved, then they’re betting the come line that they can come back a year later and maybe get 10 more or 20 more.
It removed a lot of options that we otherwise would have had.
The Union: Would you go so far as to say that this housing plan was developed with the idea not to grow affordable housing, but to actually restrict affordable housing?
Cottrell: Absolutely. And before I voted on this concept as a council member, I did a huge Internet search on inclusionary zoning. Hit inclusionary zoning on Google and there aren’t enough trees to make enough pulp to print out all of the pages on inclusionary zoning.
The proponents of this plan in Nevada City bragged that this is going on all over California. Yes, it is. But it is going on where the threshold is much higher than four units. The threshold where it kicks in is a much greater number. And there’s a scale of economy to accommodate some of the affordable housing. But when you’re in a little town of 3,000 and it triggers at four, there’s no scale of economy. This is not Lincoln, which is growing. I read recently that Lincoln is growing at something like 800 homes a year. There is a different scale of economy down there. But we don’t have it in Nevada City.
In my research, I also made phone calls to communities that have inclusionary zoning. I called advocacy groups for inclusionary zoning. And what I learned was exactly as you stated ” that inclusionary zoning is often implemented as a back-door way of controlling growth, of limiting growth.
And that is what has happened in Nevada City.
And the people that designed it knew exactly what they were doing ” that they were not creating an ordinance to encourage affordable housing; they were creating an ordinance that would discourage it.
If there’s anything I learned in studying inclusionary zoning, it’s that the government constraints must be balanced with government incentives. Our inclusionary zoning is out of balance. It is heavily laden with constraints, and there aren’t many incentives to balance the constraints.
The Union: There have been complaints that decisions by the Planning Commission for building improvements are arbitrary and capricious. Do you agree?
Cottrell: Not in the historic district. Anyone who invests in Nevada City recognizes that our downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. But when you’re out on the edges of the town, like the Seven Hills shopping district or Gold Flat industrial park, away from that historic downtown core, the subjectivity of the Planning Commission is very evident.
We have a set of rules that will work when they are consistently applied. But all too often when you appear before the Planning Commission, someone is going to say, “I don’t like the shape of that window; I think your porch needs to be moved two feet to the left.”
What happens at the Planning Commission is that projects are sometimes redesigned, and that isn’t the role of the Planning Commission. The role of the Planning Commission is to apply the rules that have been written, and if the application meets that criteria, then I don’t think the
Planning Commission, nor the City Council on appeal, which happens a lot, should get into the business of redesigning homes for people.
The Union: How could you address that problem, as a City Council member, other than through your appointee to the commission?
Cottrell: By electing a City Council majority that will respect the regulations, which means our planning commissioners will reflect that same philosophy.
The Union: Did you appoint [City Council candidate] Ruth Poulter to the Planning Commission?
Cottrell: Correct. Six years ago.
The Union: Who appointed Laurie [Oberholtzer], current Planning Commission chair]?
Cottrell: Originally, Paul [Matson] did. And when Paul went off the council, Kerry Arnett appointed her. So she is Kerry Arnett’s appointee.
The Union: Is it important for the city to get a full-time city planner on board?
Cottrell: It goes back to money, but we need two things. We need a full time city planner, which seems almost incredulous to people who say, “You’re building one house at a time; why do you need a full time city planner?” Part of it is the pressure of changing existing buildings – people come into Nevada City and they spend a ton of money on a home, but it’s not exactly what they want and they want to add a bedroom, tweak this, tweak that. So there’s constantly planning issues coming through.
If you have a perfect world, if the money was in the general fund, I would say we need a full-time city planner rather than a part-time. But additionally, we need our own building inspector. The biggest problem we had this past year in the historic district was obviously the hat store. And that was the red flag issue. The problem with the hat store was the miscommunication between the city and the county. We’re too small a town to have our own building department, so we have forever contracted out with the county. The county is our building department.
Sometimes there is a lack of communication between the county and the city, and sometimes a county plan checker will look at a plan in the context of county regulations rather than city, and sometimes you wind up with situations like the hat store, which became far more controversial than it needed to be.
If we had had our own building inspector in-house, then the plans would have been checked in City Hall and not at the Rood Center, and we wouldn’t have had all the controversy. So it’s two-pronged ” we need a full-time city planner, and we need to contract with the county so that a building inspector will physically come into City Hall, not the other way around.
The Union: What would you like to accomplish that you haven’t accomplished in 12 years?
Cottrell: I would like to see a City Council and a Planning Commission that operates consistent with the regulations that have been written. I would like to see the community be involved in a vision committee. I think we need to bring in every element of the community and see where we want to be in another 12 to 15 years. And that means the churches, schools, retail merchants, the manufacturers, the retired people . . .
I’ve asked for a community vision committee at least four times in the past five or six years, and I’ve been turned down each time. Our general plan update committee is two people. And they meet in the afternoon.
The Union: Who are those two people?
Cottrell: Laurie Oberholtzer and [city councilman] Dave McKay. They are the entire general plan committee, along with of course the input of the city planner, who is now leaving. So our new housing element was written by two people, sitting in City Hall in the middle of the afternoon and tweaking the general plan to match the changes in the housing element without ever having the community as a whole have input.
What I would like to see is a community-wide vision committee that can take a look. People from every possible segment in Nevada City, all come together and say, “We know how we got to where we are, we know where we are, but do we really know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there?” I don’t think that two people should make that decision for the community.
The Union: So if we’re following this process, in order for you achieve your vision, it would take more than you just getting re-elected?
Cottrell: Yes, it would.
The Union: You would, we’re guessing, want Ruth Poulter elected to another seat.
Cottrell: That’s a fair analysis.
The Union: And who else?
Cottrell: If I made a better argument for a vision committee, perhaps I might be able to convince Kerry Arnett to support that concept. I certainly hope that he would. I would not expect that support from either David [McKay] or Conley [Weaver]. They’ve made their position very clear that they are not interested in the community vision.
The Union: But you couldn’t have gotten support from Tom [Balch]?
Cottrell: No, Tom was never supportive of it. I don’t know why. I’ve no idea; never asked him about it. The only support I ever had for it in all the years I’ve asked was from Pat Dyer, and he was not in favor of a vision committee in advance of updating the general plan. But he was in favor of a general plan committee that allowed community participation. That would have been a compromise that I would have been very happy with.
But at that time, it was only Pat and myself that felt that way, and the others felt that the general plan was so good and so solid it really didn’t need any community input. And Pat and I said at the time, “Well if it’s that good, it will certainly stand up to the scrutiny of public input. How hard can this be?” But it wasn’t to be.
The Union: There has been discussion about creating a downtown business association. Is the City Council doing enough to interact with
businesses and attract more visitors to the city?
Cottrell: We could be more proactive, sure. We’re doing a pretty good job. We do have a representative on the ERC; we do commit funds to ERC every year to keep them going. . . . In addition, we give to the Chamber of Commerce 8 percent of all the transit occupancy tax collected, and over the past five years that tax has averaged over $350,000 a year. They get 8 percent of that, and they get the rent from the unit above theirs – the South Yuba Canal Building – that’s $350 a month.
So we recognize the Chamber of Commerce is the promotional agency for Nevada City and we need to support them. The Economic Resource Council we need to support as well, and we do. They handle a little different aspect of things other than what a Chamber of Commerce handles.
The Union: Do you work for the chamber?
Cottrell: I’m editor of the newsletter. I spend probably 8 to 10 hours a week in the chamber office.
The Union: Are you concerned about the proliferation of real estate offices on Broad Street?
Cottrell: I’ve no solution, and the last thing that government should be doing is determining which business operates inside of which door front. We certainly want to encourage the retail businesses to come in, but it is very hard for retail businesses to pay the monthly rent on Broad Street. So you wind up with mortgage companies and real estate companies that have big-ticket sales every month that can absorb that kind of rent.
The Union: Why would anybody walk down Broad Street to see a bunch of real estate offices?
Cottrell: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not excited by the growth of real estate offices and mortgage companies and what have you, the non-sales-tax-generating businesses. I’m not real excited about it.
The Union: The city can’t influence that at all, even with a historical downtown district?
Cottrell: I don’t know how we could.
The Union: You sure can when it comes to signs and everything else related to the historic buildings.
Cottrell: Yes. But the city ought to stay out of the way of determining which business goes into which store front. That’s not to say the city can’t work with the Chamber and with the Economic Resource Council to try to bring businesses into town that will generate retail sales.
The Union: Is there a key issue in your campaign that we haven’t touched on?
Cottrell: There are a couple. Now that the housing element has been accepted by the state – and they’ve indicated it will be; we haven’t received the formal certification, but they’ve indicated it will be – even though I opposed the language of it, I certainly hope in the next year Nevada City will apply for a community development block grant for the citizens. Grass Valley and the county have these programs in place – most communities have these programs.
Some of our old homes are without foundations, and people need to put foundations under their homes or maybe new siding. The block grant is a revolving, low-interest account where citizens have an opportunity to acquire a low-interest loan through the city rather than going to a bank to do it. Most communities have it; we don’t. And I hope in 2004 we do.
I also hope in 2004 we are able to build our first little miniature hydroelectric power plant. Either at the city reservoir or the discharge at the
wastewater treatment plant – both sites have been found by an electrical engineer to be suitable.
It would create hydroelectric power that would put power back into the grid. And depending upon how much grant money might come with that (and the state does have a program for alternative energy investment), perhaps in five or six years we will be saving $25,000 or $30,000 a year. Considering the electric bills we are currently paying to PG&E, I would like to see that get started within the next year.
I really want to see in 2004 the community vision committee. Even if the end product is not incorporated into the general plan, at least we have that input and have a good idea from the citizens about where we want to go.
It will answer a lot of questions about growth. If we bring everybody together to talk about the future, as a result of that dialogue we will have a much better idea of whether the majority of the citizens of Nevada City want to grow or whether they want to keep the city limits where they are, and stay a community of 3,000. But I think they should make that decision, and not two people.
The Union: That’s the subtext of this campaign, isn’t it?
Cottrell: Absolutely. I will say it’s the most awkward campaign – this is my fourth ” because there are only four candidates. In the previous three campaigns, there were anywhere from six to seven candidates.
There is no use beating around the bush. You know what the dynamic of this election is. This is Dave McKay and Sally Harris versus Steve Cottrell and Ruth Poulter. That is the perception by the community, and I think it’s a fair perception. I have one goal, and that is to come in first. Past elections, I’ve run to win. This election I’m running to come in first.
The Union: What are people telling you when you knock on doors?
Cottrell: I haven’t knocked on any doors. I’m kind of a private person, and I try to put myself in the place of the voter. I have a hunch a lot of them are private people and probably get tired of politicians knocking on their door.
The Union: Do politicians knock on your door?
Cottrell: They don’t knock on my door. When you go out and door-knock, you’re given a voter “walking list.” Do you think Dave McKay is going to knock on my door?
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