Lawsuit threatens to derail Auburn workforce housing project

Published on June 6, 2019

A new lawsuit filed by Concerned Citizens for Community and Public Lands against the Placer County Government Center Master Plan Update threatens to derail a proposed workforce housing development on the North Auburn campus, county officials said today.

The suit challenges the adequacy of the master plan’s environmental impact report, focusing on demolition of the DeWitt Theater, which the plan could eventually allow. Though the master plan update could allow for the theater’s demolition, the county Board of Supervisors’ approval of the master plan in April included a provision that allows community members up to two years to organize funding to rehabilitate the theater before the county would make any decisions about its future.

“Building more workforce housing is clearly one of our community’s top priorities and we have been laser focused on working with community and industry partners to create housing opportunities like the DeWitt project,” said Board Chair Kirk Uhler. “This lawsuit is a disappointing and unnecessary roadblock to meeting the community housing needs we’ve all been working so hard toward.

“We’ve offered community groups time to find needed funding to rehabilitate the theater. It’s unfortunate that this group is holding hostage desperately-needed housing when there have been plenty of opportunities to achieve their goal without litigation.”

The master plan update for the county-owned campus envisions new amenities like a community events center, open space and a DeWitt heritage area to honor the campus’s rich history. It also proposes a 79-unit multi-family workforce housing development with a wide range of income limits and achievable rents, ranging from 30 – 60 percent of the local average median income.

In June 2018, the board unanimously approved an option-to-ground-lease agreement with Mercy Housing California to develop the housing project.

While Concerned Citizens states in the filing that its intent is not to target the housing project with the litigation, because the project relies on the development standards and environmental analysis approved in the master plan update, financing and construction of the project are threatened unless the lawsuit is resolved.

At the June 11 meeting in Auburn, the board is scheduled to consider approval of a funding plan for the Mercy housing project - a requirement for Mercy to apply for grants and tax credits essential to the project’s financial feasibility. Under the plan, if approved, the county would contribute land, fee credits and offsets toward the estimated $37.7 million project cost. The lawsuit puts in jeopardy additional grant funding and tax credits for the project, which come with deadlines to begin construction if awarded.

“The lawsuit strikes a huge blow to the momentum the county and Mercy Housing have jointly created toward starting construction on the 79-unit affordable housing community by spring 2020,” said Stephan Daues, Mercy Housing’s Regional Director of Housing Development.

The master plan for the 200-acre campus was last updated in 1993. The campus was originally the site of a World War II-era U.S. Army hospital complex that was in use for two years before the end of the war. It was then used as a state psychiatric hospital, and eventually deeded to Placer County by the state of California in the early 1970s. Since then, the county has striven to be a good steward of the campus, using the buildings to provide county services, and replacing a number of them over the years with more modern facilities. A portion of the campus has also been leased for private use by Home Depot.

Since 2015, the master plan has undergone considerable analysis, stakeholder engagement, design and planning, public scoping meetings and Board of Supervisors review.

The master plan update was also approved this year by the North Auburn Municipal Advisory Council, Placer County Planning Commission and Airport Land Use Commission.