By Cathy Locke

A plan to build homes on a hilltop overlooking Highway 50 on Placerville’s western edge is on again, after the City Council reluctantly agreed that the property is better suited to housing than commercial development.

The council in November denied developer Jerome Dover’s request to rezone the 5.83 acres off Forni Road from highway commercial to residential use. Council members said they did not want to remove the site from the city’s limited commercial land inventory.

They subsequently agreed to postpone final action to allow Dover to respond to concerns raised during the Nov. 27 hearing.

The council toured the property with the developer in February, and on Tuesday, it voted unanimously to rezone the site for a planned development of 34 homes southwest of the Office Max Commercial Center.

Though some council members said they hated to lose highway commercial acreage, they determined that commercial use of the site would be difficult without access through the existing commercial center parking lot.

Dover said he had sought the access, but the owner of Office Max center agreed only to a gated emergency access.

Because of the steep topography, commercial development of the site would not be economically viable, Dover said, explaining that he had considered retail and office space. A terraced office building would have to have an elevator to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, he said.

“It’s the site work involved to make it into a reasonably flat site,” Dover said. “We can’t get enough ground to get the rents low enough to compete in the marketplace.”

Dover urged the council to allow the housing project to proceed, explaining that he is working with the developer of a proposed hotel on the south side of Forni Road to fund water and sewer lines, and a sewer pumping station. Providing the utilities is key to any economic development in that area, he said.

Residents along that section of Forni Road argued against a residential development with access off Forni, saying it would make already dangerous conditions on the winding section of roadway even worse.

The developer maintained that the site was well suited for housing because it is within walking distance of shopping and the county government center. But residents said no one in the neighborhood walks to the shopping centers along Forni Road or Placerville Drive because of traffic hazards.

Linda Irwin said she has lived on Forni Road since 1986. “I’ve seen it go from a near-rural area to almost a highway situation on Forni Road,” she said.

Irwin said she’s afraid to cross the road to get mail out of her mailbox.

Bobbye Freitas, another resident, said she used walk along the Forni Road every morning, but she stopped doing so a couple of years ago because it was too dangerous.

Freitas said she was worried about additional hazards from construction traffic for Dover’s project as well as the proposed hotel.

“It is a system you would not want to live with,” she told the council.

But Lee Holifield, who also lives on Forni Road, said he preferred housing to commercial use of the site.

“The whole top of the hill would have to be leveled for commercial,” he said.

Holifield said he believed the traffic problems would be reduced when improvements to the Missouri Flat Road/Highway 50 interchange are completed. Forni Road links Missouri Flat Road on the west with Placerville Drive on the east.

Councilman Pierre Rivas said he was disappointed that an easement wasn’t obtained through the Office Max center to serve Dover’s property when the center was built. But given the slope and lack of access, Rivas said, “I believe this project is the best and highest use.”

Councilman Mark Acuna said he was not convinced that an economically viable commercial project could not be developed on the site.

He noted that Home Depot transformed a challenging site off Placerville Drive in a project that involved realigning a creek and building a bridge. The result was a store that is a model for the corporation and one of the city’s largest sales tax generators, Acuna said.

Councilwoman Patty Borelli asked whether the city could do anything to secure an easement through the Office Max center.

City Manager John Driscoll said the city could exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire property for a public project. But in this case, he said, it would involve taking property from one private owner to benefit another.

Mayor Carl Hagen said he was opposed to seeking an easement through eminent domain. Hagen said he viewed the residential development as an infill project that would open the area to other economic opportunities such as the proposed hotel.

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