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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.
Continue reading “Second SMART station, affordable housing shell game blocked by new Petaluma City Council”

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.
Continue reading “Infill housing is critical for a healthy region and climate”

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.
Continue reading “What’s the future of Sonoma County’s fire ordinance?”

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , , , , ,

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.”
Continue reading “Montage Healdsburg resort developer fined record $6.4 million for water violations”

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, WaterTags , , , , , , , , ,

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.
Continue reading “Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development”

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Lower Russian River to get first big regional park near Monte Rio

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County has acquired 515 acres of forest on the southern edge of Monte Rio that will be protected and opened to the public as the first major regional park in the lower Russian River area, offering a new outdoor destination for residents and the region’s steady stream of visitors.

The property, long eyed by park planners as a potential gem in the growing collection of preserved open space in west county, contains towering stands of mixed redwood and Douglas fir forest, as well as more than a mile of Dutch Bill Creek, which feeds into the Russian River.

In addition, its location offers options for future links to the Sonoma Coast State Beach and an envisioned 5½-mile “parkway” south through the redwoods between Monte Rio and Occidental.

“There are so many things about this site that are incredible,” said Misti Arias, acquisitions manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which helped fund the $3.9 million purchase.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who championed the deal from its earliest stages, touted the economic benefits of expanded outdoor opportunities, imagining the new park as a recreational hub that spurs and sustains commerce and community in nearby Monte Rio, which struggles with some of the highest unemployment rates countywide.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/former-sonoma-county-parks-director-to-serve-as-interim-chief-at-open-space/

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Cazadero cannabis grower pleads guilty to felony environmental violations

Zoe Strickland, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

Michael Silva, 37, of Cazadero pled guilty to three felony counts related to environmental violations on a property where he was growing 1,450 cannabis plants, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday night, Oct. 29.

Silva hadn’t obtained environmental permits for his grow. According to the district attorney’s office, he will perform remediation, 300 hours of community service, obtain the correct permits and satisfy other requirements related to cultivating on the Cazadero property “with the understanding that charges will be dismissed upon completion in a year.”

The cannabis operation was discovered in September 2019 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Upon the discovery and following the execution of a warrant, it was determined that Silva was diverting water without permits and engaging in unpermitted construction work without best management practices that could resort in water pollution.

District Attorney Ravitch stated, “The defendant’s activities not only presented unacceptable harm to the environment but also contributed to the illegal cannabis market, a problem for this community and for lawful cultivation.”

“Silva will not be sentenced provided he abides by his agreement with the prosecution,” the statement from the district attorney’s office states. “The agreement also requires Silva to obtain the necessary permits to perform stream restoration over the next year. Should Silva fail to comply with the agreement reached with the prosecution, he faces potential administrative enforcement by sister state agencies, including CDFW and the Water Boards, and is subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years.”

The case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White, with investigation provided by CDFW and with assistance from the Water Boards.

Source: http://www.sonomawest.com/sonoma_west_times_and_news/news/cazadero-cannabis-grower-pleads-guilty-to-felony-environmental-violations/

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , ,

MALT Board of Directors’ conflicts of interest exposed as legal battle unfolds

Peter Byrne, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

In January 2017, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) paid $1.66 million to the family business of a member of its board of directors, Sam Dolcini.

The money bought a conservation easement on hundreds of acres of cattle-grazing land owned by Sam and his father, Earl Dolcini. Half of the purchase price came from a sales tax supporting Marin County Parks. The balance came from tax-deductible corporate and private donations made to MALT, a non-profit charity which the Internal Revenue Service terms a 501(c)3.

The county’s contribution to the Dolcini deal was approved without debate by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, which is closely connected to MALT. Supervisor Dennis Rodoni sat on the MALT board when the Dolcini deal was sealed, and Marin Board of Supervisors President Steve Kinsey was a MALT director from 1997 to 2016.

Years later, in May 2020, Parks suddenly ordered MALT to refund the county funds used to purchase the $1,666,500 Dolcini easement. The reason? When applying for the funding, MALT had failed to disclose the existence of an appraisal it had commissioned that valued the easement at half a million dollars less than the price paid by MALT and the county.

MALT immediately refunded $833,250 to the county using private donations. The Dolcinis did not return any of the money, said MALT spokesperson Isabel French. In June, executive director, Jamison Watts, resigned to “recalibrate my life-work balance.” As facts about the board’s historic conflicts of interest spill into view, MALT has lawyered up.

It turns out Sam Dolcini is not the first board member to sell an easement to the land trust. MALT has spent tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds buying easements from its own board members.

Read more at: https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/malt-directors-conflicts-of-interest-exposed-as-legal-battle-unfolds/Content?oid=10569479

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , , ,

Bill Keene resigns as head of Sonoma County’s open space district

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a district advisory committee member, said her constituents want to see the majority of the district funds go toward agricultural lands ― preserving open space and natural resources that remain in private hands, and thus at lower cost than having to purchase the property outright.

While residents wouldn’t be able to get on the land, “the public can also be enjoying agricultural preservation by driving by and seeing a field full of cows or seeing a ridge top that’s not full of houses.”

The longtime head of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has announced he is stepping down from the job, setting off both a search for his interim replacement and suggestions by some that his departure offers an opportunity to reshape leadership of the taxpayer-funded agency.

Bill Keene, who has served as general manager since 2009, submitted last month his resignation to the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the 30-year-old district, acting as its board of directors.

Keene, 51, who joined county government in 2000, working previously for Sonoma Water, is only the third director in the open space district’s history.

Keene stressed that the decision to leave was his ― prompted by questions he has asked himself amid the past seven months of the pandemic about the next stage of his career and intertwining crises, including escalating climate emergency, social unrest and, recently, catastrophic wildfires along the West Coast.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’ve always known where I was going, and this is the first time. But I saw a couple of my colleagues jump and decide to do different things during the pandemic, and it kind of inspired me.”

His contract expires in November, though he has agreed to stay through the end of January if needed.

The departure has opened a conversation about what the county wants in the next general manager and in the overall direction of the agency. Supervisors said it was not unusual for them to be signaling such a discussion at this point.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/bill-keene-resigns-as-head-of-sonoma-countys-open-space-district/

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Montage Healdsburg builder seeks to renegotiate deal with city as resort nears opening

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Initial discussions are underway between the builder of a long-planned luxury hotel just months away from completion in Healdsburg and city officials over public benefits in the original development deal that the builder wants to forgo, including on-site construction of affordable housing.

Montage Healdsburg, touted as the city’s first five-star hotel, is set to open by December, about 15 years after the previously named Saggio Hills project was put forward on 258 wooded acres on the north side of town. It includes 130 rooms and suites ranging from $695 to $1,695 a night, and plans for up to 70 villa-style homes.

But as the finishing touches on the hotel are put in place, the Robert Green Company, the Encinitas-based developer, and project subsidiary Sonoma Luxury Resort, are seeking to renegotiate some of the public amenities called for in the 2011 approval that paved the way for the project, previously estimated to cost up to $310 million.

In exchange for a $7.25 million cash payment to the city, Robert Green Jr., the company’s president and chief executive officer, wants to forgo on-site development of affordable housing and other public amenities he was required to provide, including a fire substation, construction of a community park, a trail network and two public roadways meant to aid emergency evacuation and link with the nearby Parkland Farms subdivision.

On the 14-acre affordable housing site, which Green was to grade for the city before handing over for construction, the developer instead wants place an open space easement, barring future building. The cash payment would be intended in part to help finance equivalent housing elsewhere in the city.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/montage-healdsburg-builder-seeks-to-renegotiate-deal-with-city-as-resort-ne/