Last August, as nearly 4,000 residents were being evacuated from the Jones Fire, Michael Kent went before the Nevada City Planning Commission hoping to build his dream home.
Kent, a prospective owner of the historic property at 414 Broad St., was ultimately denied a permit to demolish and rebuild the home built in 1880.
“The danger of this building either collapsing or inadvertently being caught on fire and causing a major issue in the downtown area — it’s real,“ Kent told the commission after a 3-to-zero vote to deny the request.
“I believe it will end in some type of tragedy if that property is not somehow demolished and rebuilt and taken care of, because it is in very bad and dangerous conditions.”
On Wednesday morning, his fears came to fruition as the building broke out in flames, leaving the structure a complete loss and damaging an adjacent building at 416 Broad St.
Nevada City police that day arrested Nathan Daniel Tomlinson, 32, on charges of arson, burglary and trespassing, authorities said.
Tomlinson was found in a North Pine Street business, and linked to the fire after a review of witness statements about the blaze, Sgt. Sean Mason said.
“We have reason to believe he was involved in that as well,” he added.
Firefighters responded around 10:30 a.m. to the Broad Street blaze, finding the vacant residence about 75% involved, said Grass Valley/Nevada City Fire Chief Sam Goodspeed.
Firefighters had a good, initial attack, though a commercial building was close and also caught fire. They extinguished the fire in the second building after several hours. Both fires were completely doused by that afternoon, he added.
The integrity of the second building is good, Goodspeed said, adding that it faced mostly smoke and water damage.
According to a Nevada City press release, fire crews used seven hydrants which impacted the water distribution system, causing brown or dirty water for some residents.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
According to owner Kristine Lane, after repeatedly warning the city about the danger, the fire was no surprise.
Lane said city officials have been on notice about the nuisance problems on the property, including people breaking in and starting warming fires, for years. She said the Nevada City Police Department was even given a key to help them mitigate those issues.
“The city has known, the cops have known. It’s not a shock,” she said. “This is just it’s a long time coming for this house. The city and the police department, quite frankly, have known and this was preventable.”
Nevada City Police Chief Chad Ellis could not immediately be reached for comment.
According to Lane, since purchasing the property in 2018, three potential buyers have been turned away due to restrictions on demolishing and rebuilding the property.
During the August meeting, city staff recommended the commission find either the building did not hold special historical interest, or that the structure was so dilapidated it could not be reasonably repaired.
Instead, the commission agreed the building should be renovated, but not demolished.
According to Planning Commission Chair Peter Van Zant, the potential fire danger presented by the property was a city issue — not one for the Planning Commission.
“We’re the Planning Commission, we do planning and we deal with applications,” Van Zant said. “They made an application to replace that building with another building, the historical district regulations say that you attempt to restore a building.”
Kent told the commission that proposition was unlikely, with estimates for renovations without adding square footage to the structure at nearly $1,000 per square foot.
“I really do believe that the city Planning Commission was fully aware of the risks and they they just turned their head to it,” Kent said. “The whole town was put in jeopardy because there’s a small group of people in the Planning Commission who believe they know better than anybody else.”
At the meeting, Nevada City engineer Bill Falconi said that while buildings in the historic district have been demolished before, one of this “magnitude” was unprecedented due to it being one of the last examples of a residence in the district.
While the commission insisted a renovation alone would be feasible, a letter from registered engineer John Payne of Del Valle consulting determined the structure had no foundation, the roof had began to fall, and the perimeter was “single wall” construction, providing no lateral protection from wind and seismic events.
“It is our opinion that the building is so damaged from the elements and time that it is unusable and cannot reasonably be repaired or restored,” the letter read.
Van Zant said he understands where the owner is coming from, it simply was not an issue for the commission.
“We don’t deal with fire issues. We don’t deal with safety issues. We don’t deal with homeless issues at Planning Commission,” he said. “We deal with applications and architectural review.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email [email protected] or call 530-477-4229.