Posted on Categories Land Use, TransportationTags , , ,

Train lines: How two Press Democrat owners finessed a Petaluma real estate deal

Will Carruthers, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

Last week, we reported that two owners of the Press Democrat, Darius Anderson and Doug Bosco, helped craft a state-funded bailout deal benefiting Bosco’s privately owned Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company while Anderson’s Platinum Advisors was a contract lobbyist for SMART from 2015 to 2020.

This week, we report the details of a real estate transaction in downtown Petaluma in which the A. G. Spanos Corporation paid $1.4 million to SMART and $1 million to another public rail agency which is financially intertwined with Bosco’s railroad company for their “right of ways” on less than 600 feet of railroad track traversing the triangular lot upon which Spanos is currently building the North River Apartments. A right of way is a perpetual, transferable easement allowing its owner to traverse the property of another. Without securing these easements, Spanos’ project was dead in the water and could not move through Petaluma’s planning process.

The Spanos property abuts the Petaluma tidal estuary, a row of historic businesses and restaurants on Petaluma Blvd. North, and Hunt & Behrens livestock, poultry and pet-feed operation. Public records show that SMART’s executive director, Farhad Mansourian, allowed Anderson to guide SMART’s easement sale to Spanos. Simultaneously, Bosco negotiated Spanos’ purchase of an overlapping right of way on the short spur owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority. “NCRA” is a state-chartered rail agency which critics say was largely operated to benefit Bosco’s company, commonly known as NWP Co.

Mansourian allowed Anderson to work on several projects that were outside the contracted scope of work of Platinum Advisors’ role as SMART’s Sacramento lobbyist, which began in 2015. Last week, we reported on how Anderson’s firm, as part of its work for SMART, lobbied on state legislation which helped the interests of his business partner, Bosco, as the NCRA and the NWP Co foundered. This week we report another instance of Anderson leveraging his position as SMART lobbyist to benefit his media business partner and political mentor, Bosco.

Read more at https://bohemian.com/train-lines/

Posted on Categories TransportationTags , ,

Railroaded: Behind the scenes of SMART’s freight takeover

Will Carruthers, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

Two Press Democrat owners deeply involved in North Bay rail politics

On the muddy banks of the Petaluma River in downtown Petaluma, a new housing complex is rising. Crews employed by the A.G. Spanos Corporation, a Stockton-based developer, are constructing a 184-unit apartment complex on a lot sandwiched between a row of historic businesses and the tidal slough.

Before laying out the concrete foundations, the crews ripped out a few hundred feet of railroad tracks that crossed the lot. The old rails were part of a spur located less than a mile off the century-old main line running between Sausalito and Eureka. Planning and construction could not commence until Spanos controlled the legal “rights of way” on the tracks.

Rights of way are contractual easements that allow their owners to travel across another’s property. In this case, the easements on the riverfront tracks had value because the developer needed to extinguish them in order to build. That fact cost Spanos millions of dollars.

Public records reveal that lengthy negotiations between the Spanos corporation and two state-created rail transportation agencies for ownership of the rights of way preceded breaking ground for the construction project. One right of way was owned by a passenger line, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district — SMART. A second right of way was owned by a state-owned freight line, North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA). Both railway agencies saw the sale of the easements as potential cash cows.

Read more at https://bohemian.com/freight-railroaded/

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Appeals of state-mandated housing targets by Sonoma County, Windsor denied

Ethan Varian, PRESS DEMOCRAT

A regional planning agency Friday issued preliminary denials of appeals by Sonoma County and Windsor seeking a reduction in their upcoming state-mandated housing goals, which are set to dramatically increase starting in 2023.

Though not final, the denials mean officials governing the county’s unincorporated areas and its fourth-largest city will likely need to set in motion plans to approve the construction of thousands more housing units for all income levels between 2023 to 2031.

In a virtual public hearing Friday, representatives from the county and Windsor presented their appeals before the Association of Bay Area Governments — the agency tasked with determining how state housing targets are distributed across the nine-county region. While acknowledging Sonoma County’s severe housing shortage as the area continues to rebuild after a string of destructive fire seasons, officials asked that their goals each be cut by at least half and redistributed to other jurisdictions in the county.

“We simply do not agree with the location,” said Tennis Wick, Sonoma County’s top land use official.

The unincorporated county’s home building goal — known as its Regional Housing Needs Assessment — is set to jump to 3,881 total units, half of which must be for residents with low incomes. That’s up from just 515 homes for the current eight-year cycle. There are about 54,000 households in unincorporated communities, the second most in the county, according to state officials.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/appeals-of-state-mandated-housing-targets-by-sonoma-county-windsor-denied/

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Guernewood Park resort developers seeking minor land use changes

Rollie Atkinson, SOCONEWS

120-room destination project has been proposed since 2008, delayed by local economy cycles

A 10-acre riverfront parcel at the center of Guernewood Park has set vacant for almost 50 years since the half-abandoned Ginger’s Rancho resort was torched by vandals. Before that it was the site for almost a century of the Guernewood Park Resort that hosted big band dances, tourists debarked from excursion trains, beach revelers and bowling and roller rink enthusiasts.

The current owner of the property, Kirk Lok, of Lok Hospitality, has been trying to win final approvals to build a new resort since at least 1998. On Oct. 28, Sonoma County’s Board of Zoning Adjustments will hold a public hearing to consider approval to allow for a streamside conservation plan and riparian zone encroachment for his 120-room development. Most of the approvals for a Guernewood Park resort have been previously granted as ebbs and flows of the local economy and tourism business have stalled Lok’s timing to break ground.

Lok recently brought in a new investment partner, Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which owns and manages high-end destination properties on the west coast and beyond. The firm is based in Kirkland, Washington.

The Oct. 28 hearing will begin at 1 p.m. and is a virtual meeting hosted on Zoom. The meeting I.D. is 962-4871-2760 and the passcode is 693832. The project was the subject of a recent a Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council meeting where concerns were raised about increased traffic on Highway 116 and a shortage of nearby worker housing for the proposed 37 employees. Several MAC members also voiced support for the project that includes public access to the river and the preservation of hundreds of mature redwood trees. The site is bordered on the east by Hulbert Creek.

Read more at https://soconews.org/scn_sebastopol_west_county/news/guernewood-park-resort-developers-seeking-minor-land-use-changes/article_82afdbd4-342d-11ec-bf71-6361653fa09d.html?

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”

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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/

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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/