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Second SMART station, affordable housing shell game blocked by new Petaluma City Council

Kathryn Palmer, PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the new Petaluma City Council’s first meeting, a tie vote has all but killed the revised Corona Station project meant to create more than 500 homes and usher in the city’s second SMART train station.

It was an unceremonious end to a proposal that has dominated public meeting agendas for more than a year, sparked heated controversies and prompted a lawsuit from new Council member Brian Barncale that forced developer Todd Kurtin to go back to the drawing board.

“Unless some miracle gets pulled out of a hat, this whole thing is basically over,” Kurtin said the day after the vote. “At the end of the day, the economics of the project and the politics of the city just didn’t mesh, so it all fell apart.”

The convoluted project, its most recent iteration proposing 131 affordable units at the corner of Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard, was inexorably tied to the funding of the proposed east side SMART station as well as the future of a 402-unit apartment project next to the current downtown train station.

The vote Monday night effectively denied a linchpin request made by the downtown apartment developer Hines Co. to count affordable housing units on Corona Road toward requirements related to the downtown project. Representatives for Hines say the refusal makes their project financially untenable and scuttles the web of agreements that linked all three projects.

“We wanted to use the affordable housing units at the Corona Station as the (downtown project’s) alternative housing compliance,” Kurtin said, referring to the city policy that requires developers either to include on-site affordable units or place them in an alternative off-site location. “Since we can’t use the Corona Station affordable units to fulfill that, then everything is going to be collapsing.”

The evening meeting marked the first time newly elected officials Barnacle and Dennis Pocekay virtually joined the dais. The inaugural council session resulted in a rare stalemate 3-3-1 vote, with Pocekay joining Mayor Teresa Barrett and Councilmember D’Lynda Fischer in denying the request, while Councilmembers Dave King, Mike Healy and Kevin McDonnell supported the project. Barnacle’s lawsuit against the Corona Station project was a clear conflict of interest, requiring the new council member to recuse himself on the vote.

The split vote could signal a new progressive bloc headed by Barrett and Fischer, after this week’s rebuke of a project that former Council members Gabe Kearney and Kathy Miller historically supported.
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Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , ,

Windsor pulls plug on all-electric rule to stave off lawsuits by developers

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Windsor has capitulated to developers who challenged the town’s ban on natural gas in most new homes, opting to end its all-electric rule to stave off potentially expensive litigation.

The Town Council on Wednesday voted unanimously, if regretfully, to delete the all-electric rule it passed in late 2019, when it became the first Sonoma County jurisdiction to ban natural gas in new residential construction under four stories starting in early 2020.

The vote to end the policy — known as a “reach code” because it’s a discretionary move beyond mandatory minimum building standards — is necessary to end the litigation under the terms of a settlement reached with the developers who sued, according to town officials.

But for Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a staunch supporter of the all-electric rule, the idea that Windsor had to abandon the climate-friendly policy under legal pressure was difficult to believe. She lamented the town’s inability to sufficiently fund its legal defense, which she estimated could cost up to $400,000, even after her efforts to drum up extra cash from private sector climate allies.

“It’s beyond comprehension that we have to fold and reverse our reach code because a rich developer can outspend us,” Fudge said.

Two developers, Bill Gallaher and the Windsor-Jensen Land Co., sued Windsor over the natural gas ban, with Gallaher also suing Santa Rosa over the city’s rule. The developers challenged the process by which the jurisdictions had passed their all-electric rules, citing the bedrock California Environmental Quality Act in their lawsuits.

Windsor’s quandary with its all-electric rule — to defend or disown — drew advocacy from across the North Bay and attention from across the state. Climate advocates urged town officials to defend the natural gas ban, seen as a small but key part of California’s struggle to curb the disastrous effects of global heating.
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Bay Area transit can be a complex, costly ‘nightmare.’ The pandemic might help fix that

Mallory Moench, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

At 3:15 every weekday morning, Richard Burnett leaves his house in Vallejo for the 45-minute walk to the downtown bus station. Two buses and a train later — all run by different agencies, with different schedules and different fares racking up — he’s at his job in San Francisco an hour before clocking in.

Eight working hours later, he turns around and does the whole thing over again. He gets home by 7:30 p.m., eats and goes straight to bed.

“If you live that far, you have to do that sacrifice to make it work,” said Burnett, a customer service representative for a tech company who endures the six-hour commute because he can’t afford both a car and rent. “There’s no time to do anything else.”

Burnett, who advises the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area’s transit coordinating agency, on policies affecting low-income and disabled riders, dreams of express buses to main job centers and fares based on zones that would make traveling cheaper. But that would require what Burnett calls the “fiefdoms” of Bay Area’s 27 transit agencies — encompassing buses, cable cars, trains and ferries that stretch across nine counties — to agree on changes.

The pandemic, which created an existential crisis for Bay Area public transportation, has reignited a long-running debate over how to make the system better and who should control it. Each of the agencies now sets its own fares and schedules. Few other U.S. metropolitan areas have such vast and disjointed transit: Los Angeles County, smaller in size but larger in population, has nearly the same number of agencies, but only one county transportation authority.
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Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Infill housing is critical for a healthy region and climate

Zack Subin & Zoe Siegel, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Bay Area cities and the state government have taken great steps recently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the climate crisis. Recent bold action to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy include the exclusion of fossil gas from new buildings in major Bay Area cities, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s series of executive orders to phase out gasoline-powered cars, and state legislation to bring a carbon-free power grid.

In order to more completely address climate change, we need to think beyond energy infrastructure and tackle our housing crisis as well. To do this, we need to change the way we build, and in doing so change the environmental rhetoric around new housing. This change requires us to build dense infill developments as well as “missing middle housing” (like townhouses, fourplexes, and courtyard apartments) in existing communities, while discouraging sprawl development in high risk zones most vulnerable to climate change.

Simply allowing for more people to live in Bay Area cities is one of the most potent means of reducing climate pollution with local policies. According to research led by UC Berkeley’s Chris Jones (available interactively at coolclimate.org), it could be the single most impactful measure for Bay Area cities ranging from San Francisco to Oakland to Mountain View. This is because cities in the inner Bay Area already have relatively low carbon footprints, particularly within the transit-rich core.

Housing we don’t build in cities ends up in outlying suburbs where folks are forced to drive for most daily activities, burning gasoline and necessitating far more asphalt, steel and concrete. A drumbeat of reports from state and national organizations, including the California Air Resources Board, have said that the continued upward trend in miles driven is a threat to our emissions goals, even considering a continued shift to electric cars. Moreover, continued development on the suburban fringe threatens the very natural and working lands we need intact to reach carbon neutrality.
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Posted on Categories Forests, Land Use, Sustainable Living, TransportationTags , , , ,

What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?

Deborah Eppstein, Craig Harrison & Marylee Guinon, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

Amid another extreme fire season, concerned Sonoma County residents wonder why their Board of Supervisors is fervently working to exempt new development on unsafe roads from Cal Fire safety standards.

Residents as well as the following advocacy groups submitted opposition letters: Bennett Valley Residents for Safe Development, Forests Unlimited, General Plan Update Environmental Coalition, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Save Our Sonoma Neighborhoods, Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Council and Wine and Water Watch.

For the fourth time this year, the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (BOF) has refused to certify Sonoma County’s Fire Safe Ordinance, as it does not meet safety standards. Subsequently, on November 4, the BOF unanimously adopted a moratorium on considering county certifications, having wasted untold hours and public dollars during 2020 evaluating Sonoma County’s flawed ordinances.

Cal Fire standards require new development to provide concurrent emergency vehicle access and egress of residents during a wildfire. We question why our Supervisors refuse to protect firefighters and the public in the wildland urban interface.

• What motives could justify knowingly sacrificing lives and property? Is it to promote unfettered housing and commercial development in high fire hazard locations?

• Does the County strive to eliminate all constraints to new development thereby preserving its micro-management of the approval process? Given the Supervisors have put off the General Plan indefinitely, perhaps the County lacks the strategic framework and fortitude to lead with policy?

• Or were the Supervisors woefully misinformed by County Counsel concerning the Ordinance’s lack of standards, which failed to meet Cal Fire standards?

An October 23 BOF letter (p. 2) stated BOF staff “have significant concerns” that Sonoma County’s standards do not “allow concurrent civilian evacuation.” It emphasized (p. 8) the County’s failure to cooperate, refusing even to respond to direct questions: “Sonoma County has had repeated opportunities to identify and provide citations for these standards. Sonoma County repeatedly declines to do so.”

Sonoma County finally acknowledged this fiasco and removed its request for certification from the November BOF agenda.
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Montage Healdsburg resort developer fined record $6.4 million for water violations

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State water quality regulators have fined the developer of Montage Healdsburg, the ultra-luxury resort set to open Saturday, more than $6.4 million for environmental violations tied to hotel construction during the stormy winter months of late 2018 and early 2019.

The fine — the largest environmental penalty of its kind on the North Coast — was approved Friday by the Santa Rosa-based North Coast Water Quality Control Board following a nearly eight-hour virtual hearing.

The board’s 5-0 vote affirmed a fine recommended by agency prosecutors as part of a two-year enforcement action against Sonoma Luxury Resort, a subsidiary of Encinitas-based developer the Robert Green Co.

“Today, the prosecution team proved that there were widespread, persistent stormwater violations at the discharger’s construction project,” Dan Kippen, prosecuting attorney for the State Water Resources Control Board, told the regional body Friday. “Ordering the discharger to pay the proposed liability will send a message not only to this discharger that its conduct was unacceptable and must be avoided for its future projects, but will also send a message to all future developers that they flout the (construction general permit) and other water laws at their own peril.”

The 38 violations put forward by regulators included woefully and repeatedly inadequate erosion control measures documented over several months by water quality investigators at the 258-acre resort property at Healdsburg’s northeastern edge, last estimated to cost $310 million. Prosecutors said nearly 9.4 million gallons of prohibited runoff and sediment-filled stormwater escaped the heavily sloped construction site and into streams of the Russian River watershed, leading to two forced work stoppages. The affected tributaries included Foss Creek, a steelhead trout stream.

“I can stand here before all of you right now and tell you in my 20 years, I’ve yet to see a site this nasty,” Jeremiah Puget, senior environmental scientist with the regional board, said Friday. “If you take this case in its entirety, we believe that we went above and beyond our role — as did the city of Healdsburg — in trying to return this site into compliance.”
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Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development

Tyler Silvy, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.
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Posted on Categories Forests, Local Organizations, WaterTags , , , ,

West County environmentalists recognized

Camille Escovedo, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

Sonoma County Conservation Council’s “Environmentalist of the Year” award to Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann

The Sonoma County Conservation Council bestowed this year’s Ernestine I. Smith “Environmentalist of the Year” award upon three local luminaries of the environmental justice movement at its holiday networking and environmental awards ceremony Friday, co-hosted with the Sonoma Group of the Sierra Club.

The council named Maya Khosla, Rick Coates and Chris Poehlmann as its three “forest champions.” Khosla is a wildlife biologist, filmmaker and poet laureate of Sonoma County whose recent Legacy Project sought to address the 2017 Tubbs Fire and regeneration with poetry in open spaces, as stated by her website. Meanwhile, the careers of Coates and Poehlmann draw them deep into the West County forests and often the courtroom, maneuvering the legal system to prevent logging projects that jeopardize regional watersheds and forests.

“Not all grassroots organizers are really good at the technical bureaucracy of multi-page permits, understanding the fine details, but these two men have been really, really good at both of those, and try to do as much as possible within the regulatory framework,” according to Wendy Krupnick, council secretary and a member of the annual event’s organizing committee. “But occasionally, when that does not work, the only avenue left is a lawsuit.”

She said the Sonoma County Conservation Council (SCCC) receives nominations from the broader environmental justice community for review by a subcommittee of primarily members of the SCCC’s board of directors. The awardees receive a certification from the California state legislature honoring their contributions to environmental advocacy, Krupnick said.
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Posted on Categories Climate Change & EnergyTags , ,

Windsor poised to repeal natural gas ban opposed by developers

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

While Windsor has been negotiating with its challengers, Santa Rosa is not looking to settle.

“Santa Rosa is fighting the lawsuit and intends to keep our all-electric ordinance intact,” said Councilman Chris Rogers on Friday in a text message.

Windsor is preparing to repeal its ban on natural gas in most new homes as part of a tentative settlement with Bill Gallaher, the politically connected Sonoma County developer who has sued the town over its new climate-friendly mandate.

The Town Council on Nov. 18 put off the move under advice from Town Manager Ken MacNab after a flood of support from community members urging Windsor to defend its 2019 ban, which requires all-electric appliances in most new homes under three stories. MacNab had asked for more time “to review some of the legal points in the litigation.”

Under the proposed settlement, Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen Land Co., another developer that sued the town over the ban, would drop their lawsuits in exchange for a repeal of the all-electric rule, according to town documents. Town officials said they have pursued a deal to avoid costly litigation — taking an opposite tack from Santa Rosa, where City Hall is steeled for its own court fight with Gallaher over similar all-electric rules for new housing.

The all-electric measures are meant to align cities with California’s goal of fighting climate change by eliminating fossil fuel use associated with buildings. And supporters, including Windsor residents and elected officials and climate advocates from across the North Bay, have called on Windsor to stick with its rules while questioning the influence of political contributions that Mayor Dominic Foppoli has received from Gallaher. Some are calling for the mayor to recuse himself from the matter.

All of the written public responses Windsor officials received and published ahead of the Nov. 18 Town Council meeting were in support of the town’s natural gas ban.

“It would really be an extreme disappointment if a millionaire developer was able to bully the town out of doing all the amazing work to support the climate that this town does,” Windsor resident Jennifer Silverstein said at the virtual council meeting, noting that Windsor’s response to the Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen lawsuits could have ramifications beyond the town. “If they succeed in bullying us, they will bully Sonoma County and they will bully California.”

The five-member council is set to discuss the litigation again Wednesday in closed session. Its next regular meeting is scheduled for Dec. 16.
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Focus on roads, bikes and pedestrian projects as Measure DD passes

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Voters this month agreed to lock in tens of millions of local dollars each year for road improvements and upgrades to Sonoma County’s bus network and bicycle and pedestrian paths, ensuring transportation officials have dedicated funds for infrastructure projects into 2045.

In an countywide election that saw near-record turnout, Measure DD comfortably passed with 71% support, 4 points clear of the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. The extension of an existing quarter-cent sales tax won’t kick in until spring of 2025, but allows the county and its nine cities to start initial planning and grant work on the next generation of road and transportation projects.

While Measure DD, also known as the Go Sonoma Act, carries forward similar objectives as Measure M, the 20-year tax that voters narrowly passed in 2004, it has a reconfigured spending plan for the projected $26 million in yearly revenue. No major projects were included in the renewal measure after the initial tax allocated 40% of its annual funds to widening Highway 101 from the Marin County line north to Windsor.

The new measure puts more emphasis on smaller upgrades, including a greater share of funding for local roads, transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/county-eyes-road-upgrades-as-measure-dd-passes/