Posted on Categories Sustainable Living, WaterTags , , ,

Is it sustainable for Sonoma County to build new homes during an ongoing water crisis?

Ethan Varian, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Starting in 2023, the state wants Sonoma County to approve over 14,500 new homes for residents of all income levels over the following eight years.

Though no final target has been approved, officials in some of the county’s largest cities have made ramping up home construction a priority with the goal of alleviating the region’s shortage of affordable housing.

At the same time, though, the state is also mandating water cutbacks across the region during what is shaping up to be the worst local drought in more than four decades.

The two seemingly competing mandates have some questioning the wisdom of continuing to push growth in the face of a water crisis.

“How are we still approving new development in the midst of a two year drought with no idea what’s going to happen next year?” said David Keller, a Petaluma resident and Bay Area director of Friends of Eel River, a Eureka-based environmental advocacy group.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/north-bay-qa-is-it-sustainable-for-sonoma-county-to-build-new-homes-durin/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , ,

As disasters worsen, California looks at curbing construction in risky areas

Christopher Flavelle, THE NEW YORK TIMES

The state’s insurance regulator endorsed proposals that could reshape the real estate market, the latest sign of climate shocks hitting the economy.

At the start of wildfire season, California’s insurance regulator has backed sweeping changes to discourage home building in fire-prone areas, including looking at cutting off new construction in those regions from what is often their only source of insurance — the state’s high-risk pool.

The proposals, many of which would require approval by the State Legislature, could remake the real estate market in parts of California and are the latest sign of how climate change is beginning to wreak havoc with parts of the American economy.

On Friday, the insurance commissioner, Ricardo Lara, endorsed proposals that include halting state funding for infrastructure in certain areas prone to fire, leaving vacant lots undeveloped and the expansion of more stringent building codes.

“These ideas are going to be challenging,” Mr. Lara said at the beginning of a meeting of the Climate Insurance Working Group, which he established and which recommended the changes. “We are really going into uncharted territory.”

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/04/climate/climate-California-wildfires-insurance.html?searchResultPosition=3

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Forests, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Los Angeles Superior Court ruling signals officials must consider California wildfire risks

Press Release, CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

In a major victory against a destructive development larger than Griffith Park, a judge has issued a ruling blocking Tejon Ranchcorp’s Centennial. The project would have put 57,000 residents on remote, fire-prone wildlands 65 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff found that the development’s environmental review failed to account for the increased wildfire risk the 12,000-acre project would pose to surrounding wildlands. The ruling sends a clear signal that elected officials across the state must consider the serious risks of building on wildfire-prone land.

Between 1964 and 2015, 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres occurred within five miles of the site, including four within the proposed project’s boundaries. Nearly all contemporary wildfires in California are caused by human sources such as power lines and electrical equipment, and development increases that threat.

“The court’s rejection of the Tejon development highlights the danger of building in high fire-risk areas,” said J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science is clear that developments like Centennial will literally be built to burn, and our elected officials can’t continue to downplay these risks through inaccurate environmental reviews. This is a wake-up call for policymakers across California.”

The ruling found that the environmental review’s conclusion that “wildfire risk impacts outside of the project site will be reduced to less than significant is not supported by any analysis.” The court’s decision on Tuesday follows a recent Center report showing how construction in high fire-risk wildlands puts more people in harm’s way and contributes to dramatic increases in fire suppression costs. The California Attorney General recently challenged several developments in fire-prone areas, including one in Guenoc Valley, where a proposed project’s footprint includes portions of the recent LNU Complex Fire.

Read more at https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/judge-blocks-massive-tejon-ranchcorp-development-in-la-county-2021-04-08/

Posted on Categories Forests, Land UseTags , , ,

Op-Ed: It’s about time California put the brakes on new housing developments in high-fire risk areas

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

One of the best ways to prevent wildfire destruction and death is to stop building houses in the likely path of the flames. Yet cities and counties across the state keep doing exactly that — approving sprawling new housing developments next to wildlands and marching property and people deeper into high-fire risk areas.

We know this development pattern is dangerous. Half of the buildings destroyed by wildfire in California over the last 30 years have been in developments on the urban fringe, next to wildlands (a type of geography that planners call the “wildland-urban interface”). For years, state leaders have wrung their hands over this contradiction, but demurred from taking action because local governments have control over land-use decisions.

Now, finally, someone in power has gotten off the sidelines. Among his final acts as state attorney general before becoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra has gone to court to try to block housing developments approved in high-fire risk areas.

In February, Becerra joined a lawsuit challenging the Guenoc Valley Project, which would put 1,400 houses, hotels, restaurants and shops on Lake County hills that have been burned by wildfires a dozen times, most recently last year. Before the project was approved, Becerra’s office had sent letters to Lake County officials warning that the project’s design would exacerbate wildfire risk and hinder evacuations during a fire.
Continue reading “Op-Ed: It’s about time California put the brakes on new housing developments in high-fire risk areas”

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , , , ,

Russian River, backed up at coastal mouth, threatens flooding in Jenner

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

High waves and heavy surf that have battered the Sonoma Coast for days and sealed the Russian River mouth with a great mound of sand have raised the water high enough to threaten flooding in the town of Jenner over the next few days.

Water already surrounded the Jenner Visitor Center at the river’s edge by Thursday afternoon, rising over the back deck and flooding into the parking lot adjacent to the post office and Highway 1. Farther inland, the river’s surface swelled to a height of 10 feet at the Highway 1 bridge.

But because of continued wave action on the beach, it has not been safe for Sonoma Water, the county water agency, to send out a heavy equipment operator to breach the beach dam by digging a channel through from the river estuary to the ocean. And though there has been some recent rain, the river flow remains low enough that it’s not exerting sufficient pressure to break through the sand on its own.

That combination of factors has allowed the mouth to close a “crazy” number of times this winter, said Suki Waters, who grew up in the area and owns Water Treks EcoTours in town, running boat rentals and guided kayak tours in the estuary.

“There’s not enough pressure in the river, not enough current to keep the river open during these high waves, high sand-pushing events,” she said.

At various times, the waves have been high enough to wash over the sand berm, adding even more water to the estuary, Sonoma Water said.

This is the fifth time in two months that the mouth has closed, in large part due to a dearth of rainfall that this year is sitting at around 30% of normal in most of the North Bay and wider Bay Area, National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mehle said. Santa Rosa, as of Thursday, had received 5.3 inches of rain since Oct. 1, compared to 15.5 inches in an average year, Mehle said.

The outlook is for dryer than normal weather through the end of the month, as well, Mehle said, and another high-surf advisory taking effect at 6 a.m. Friday, with waves up to 25 feet in the most exposed coastal areas.

Sonoma Water, the region’s drinking water supplier, and charged with managing conditions at the river mouth, normally would consider mechanical breaching of the sandbar once the water reaches between 7 and 9 feet high, said Barry Dugan, a community and government affairs specialist. It already has done so on three occasions over the past two months — Nov. 19, Dec. 10 and Dec. 30. One other time this winter, the mouth closed but the river breached on its own Dec. 24.

At more than 10 feet, the river “is pretty high,” said Waters, whose boats were moored near the visitor center, formerly the town’s boat house, and being monitored.

“Normally, it either breaks or, if the county can open the river mouth, it usually happens before it gets to 10 feet,” Waters said. “This is a rare event.”

The river usually runs at a rate of several thousand cubic feet per second at this point in the season, but even with the rainfall early this week, it flowed only at 459 cfs by 4 p.m. Thursday at the Hacienda Bridge in Forestville.

That’s at least high enough to allow sport fishing once again in the main stem, where between Oct. 1 and April 30 angling is shut down at 300 cfs under a 2015 regulation designed to reduce stress for imperiled fish species already challenged by drought.

Though the river rose to 300 cfs briefly Dec. 18 and again between Dec. 26-28, the river was not opened until Wednesday, when it peaked at 559 cfs before beginning to drop.

“Last year, it opened right before Thanksgiving. The year before that it opened in late October, closed, and then opened again in mid-November,” said Scott Heemstra, a longtime fishing guide and manager at King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville. “So this is pretty late for opening.”

With the river mouth closed, only smaller steelhead trout that came in early were available to be caught, however, and once the mouth is opened, the river flow could be too low to fish.

Whether the water in Jenner rises high enough in the meantime to mimic December 2015, when people were canoeing and kayaking through riverside parking lots, remains to be seen.

Dugan said the visitor center floods when the water reaches around 10.3 feet and the southbound lane of Highway 1 at 12.3 feet.

He said the CHP, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and public safety and park agencies had been notified of the situation.

But he said it remained difficult to predict what might happen.

“All I can say with any certainty is there continues to be the potential for localized flooding,” Dugan said.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/russian-river-backed-up-at-coastal-mouth-threatens-flooding-in-jenner/

Posted on Categories Land UseTags , , ,

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/

Posted on Categories Land UseTags , ,

Op-Ed: A greenbelt is no place for a resort

Teri Shore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, political unrest and economic uncertainty, Sonoma County is seeking to bypass voters and flout open space protections to push forward a luxury resort and major event center in the heart of the voter-protected Windsor-Larkfield-Santa Rosa community separator greenbelt.

The site on Old Redwood Highway also is also on the edge of Santa Rosa’s voter-approved urban growth boundary.

In one fell swoop, this development would trod on two critical legacy land-use policies overwhelmingly supported by the voters of Sonoma County. In 2016, voters approved Measure K to expand community separators by 81%. The Santa Rosa growth boundary was renewed in 2010 with 67% of the vote.
Teri Shore
Teri Shore

While everyone is tackling multiple crises, county planners want to allow construction of a luxury resort subdivision of a dozen one-, two- and three-bedroom Wine Country party houses, a warehouse-sized event building, commercial kitchen, pool bar, huge party tents and a new paved road in the community separator.

The plan is for a hundred events serving 10,000 people per year and open daily for high-end drinking, dining, weddings and music until 10 p.m. on what is presently undeveloped land next door to a youth summer camp and a residential center for seniors.

Even worse, the resort is to be located in the Tubbs fire burn zone at the foot of Fountaingrove, putting more people in harm’s way.

The resort would bring low-paying service jobs that would only exacerbate inequity and the housing crisis. It would compete with struggling local businesses.

Strangely, county planners have determined that there would be no significant environmental impacts from the intensified commercial use of the property to Piner Creek or to a large pond, which is home to yellow-legged frogs and giant salamanders on the property once known as Buzzard’s Gulch, but renamed Sonoma Solstice.

The resort and event center violate critical community separator protections, the general plan and the zoning code, and it would override the will of the voters by intensifying development and increasing density on rural land. There is nothing this big or with this many events in any community separator or any property designated for rural and resource development. There are other options for small-scale, low-intensity lodging that would be allowed.

The resort needs to be denied, delayed or sent to a vote of the people.

The county is accepting public comments on the proposal and environmental review until Tuesday. A public hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustments is tentatively set for 1 p.m. Thursday for a vote on the environmental review and the project. Send your comments to permitsonoma@sonoma-county.org.

Teri Shore is North Bay regional director for Greenbelt Alliance.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/opinion/close-to-home-a-greenbelt-is-no-place-for-a-resort/

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , ,

Petaluma council decisions irk climate board

Kathryn Palmer, PETLUMA ARGUS-COURIER

Climate Action Commissioners Thursday expressed their disappointment over City Council’s recent approval of the controversial Sid Commons apartment development, renewing questions over how the nascent and relatively toothless body will impact city decisions.

The 180-unit riverside project drew significant criticism from the public and two council members over environmental concerns earlier this month, including climate change-induced flooding and sea level rise.

“The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least, for a climate activist to be sitting on the council,” said council woman and Climate Action Commission Liaison D’Lynda Fischer.

Both Vice Mayor Fischer and Mayor Teresa Barrett voted against the Sid Commons development, unconvinced the environmental studies of the project adequately addressed potential impacts on the parcel’s wetland and riparian corridor. They also questioned whether the reports relied on the best available data, especially in regards to anticipated sea level rise and increased flooding.

Last year, the city made significant strides to push climate change issues to the top of their agenda, declaring a climate emergency and creating the advisory Climate Action Commission. As a result, conversations over climate change adaptation and mitigation are only growing louder, permeating discussions within City Hall as the city moves to incorporate these new priorities.

Sid Commons is not the only development that has attracted criticism from sustainability advocates this year. Public outcry over the recent Corona Station development linked to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit raised doubts over whether its single-family, single-use design kneecaps efforts to encourage public transit use as a way of lowering carbon emissions.

Criticisms of the Corona Station development also centered significantly on affordability concerns, a key sticking point that led the council to delay the project’s final vote to Feb. 24.

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Posted on Categories Land UseTags , ,

Future Santa Rosa housing project taking shape at Journey’s End site

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A coalition of Bay Area developers and investors is finalizing plans to transform the former Journey’s End mobile home park that was mostly leveled in the 2017 Tubbs fire into one of Santa Rosa’s largest housing projects.

More than 500 new rental apartments are slated for the vacant 13.3-acre site on Mendocino Avenue, where rebuilding has been on hold while hundreds of homes rise across other parts of Santa Rosa burned in the 2017 firestorm.

Though the long-awaited, roughly $340  million project is months away from any approval and years away from construction, it comes with promises of much-needed housing and community amenities on a busy Santa Rosa artery — and a plan to prioritize requests from any displaced Journey’s End resident who wishes to return.

“It’s considerably more than I ever expected them to do,” said Linda Adrain, a longtime Journey’s End resident who plans to return. “It’s fancier than I expected it to be, it’s got more things going for it. I’m probably going to cry, realistically.”

The slow-moving project got a shot in the arm in January, when the City Council unanimously approved a formal closure of the mobile home park in a report required by state law and local ordinance. That report noted that most park residents like Adrain would receive “mitigation” payments of about $4,500, in addition to forgiven rent and utilities since the fire and insurance proceeds.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10657841-181/future-santa-rosa-housing-project

Posted on Categories Habitats, Land UseTags , , , ,

Petaluma approves controversial Sid Commons apartments

Kathryn Palmer, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

For the second time in two weeks, Petaluma’s City Council on Monday opted to move ahead with a controversial housing development, approving the 180-unit Sid Commons apartment project alongside the Petaluma River.

The development, first proposed more than 10 years ago, was downsized after running into a raft of opposition and questions in a Nov. 19 hearing before the Planning Commission.

Those changes failed to mollify a vocal group of citizens and some planning commissioners who remained concerned about environmental impacts.

But the project, approved by the council on a 5-2 vote, has now undergone all required environmental study and will be subject to state regulations and permits. Questions about the adequacy of that review and those safeguards lingered this week, fueling public scrutiny that colored much of the project’s presentation at City Hall.

Petaluma’s senior planner and its environmental planner went through staff findings and recommendations nearly line by line. Council members split over their confidence in the environmental report and thus their support for the project.

“I have to base my decision on objective evidence, and that’s what is laid out here,” said Councilman Mike Healy, who joined in the majority that approved the project and its environmental impact report. “This project is not within the 100-year floodplain, and the (river) terracing will be a benefit for the city.”

Mayor Teresa Barrett and Vice Mayor D’Lynda Fischer formed the opposition on the council, voicing doubts over the environmental study.

Continue reading “Petaluma approves controversial Sid Commons apartments”