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.
Around the Bay Area, more homes are getting built every day. It will take time to fill the need for homes that everyone can afford, but there is relief on the horizon.
Here in Sonoma County where I do most of my work in the North Bay, more than 18,000 new places to live are in the pipeline within existing cities and towns — not including the rebuild of 5,000 homes lost from the wildfires. In fact, the number of new homes in the county pipeline jumped by more than 2,000 compared to last year.
Best of all, these new homes are focused on climate-healthy housing near services, inside Urban Growth Boundaries, and within existing communities. More than half of new homes are being built in the biggest cities of Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. In Rohnert Park, an estimated 5,829 new homes are in the works, and in Santa Rosa, it’s 5,346. This includes all pending development and permitted projects, according to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
When I first moved to Sonoma nearly 30 years ago, I paid $400 a month rent for a small house. Then after 14 years I had to move and pay double the rent. After my mother died, I lived in her affordable mobile home in 7 Flags. Today I live with my partner, Stan, who bought us a house. If I had to rent now, I couldn’t afford it.
So I totally sympathize with the woman who can’t afford to return to Sonoma, who was featured in a recent column by Jason Walsh (“City of No Return,” Dec. 13). But I strongly disagree with the view that land conservation and the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) are why housing costs are high.
The current housing crisis has resulted from multiple factors, mainly loss of state and federal funding, stagnant wages for most workers and the high costs of labor and materials. The loss of homes to wildfires exacerbated the need. Luxury homes and vacation rentals reduced supply. It is not because of the UGB.
We know that simply sprawling into greenbelts outside cities does not provide affordable housing. Just look around the Bay Area. In fact, we must double down on protecting land, water and greenbelts and building better inside our cities if we are to provide enough living space and survive the climate crisis.
The UGB has served us well for 20 years by preventing sprawl that is unhealthy for residents and expensive for the city. Our town remains small-scale and inviting. The surrounding green buffers helped protect the city from wildfire. Living here is still more affordable than the rest of the Bay Area. And the UGB costs taxpayers nothing.
The good news is that we have room to grow. Right now at least 200 more new living units are on track to be built in the city over the next two years, half affordable. And there’s plenty of room inside the UGB for another 800 to 1,000 new living units under current policies. If we grow another 20 percent in the next 20 years that’s about 2,000 people and 1,000 units. We can already meet that need. And we can do more.
Now is the perfect time to ask the City Council to encourage innovative housing types such as granny units, junior dwelling units, and smaller “missing middle” units as they urgently work on updates to the zoning code to meet new state mandates for housing. New state funding is on the way to help get more affordable homes built.
There is lots of work to do to create a climate-healthy, diverse, livable city with our neighbors and friends so people like “Molly,” the woman in Mr. Walsh’s column, can come home and others can afford to stay.
Instead of wrestling over a divisive and false choice between land conservation and housing, let’s keep our commitment to a balance between open space and community. But time is running out. The city needs to start the public process soon to put a ballot measure before the voters to renew the existing UGB for another 20 years before it expires at the end of next year.
Sonoma resident Teri Shore is the North Bay regional director of the Greenbelt Alliance.
Downtown: Projects located in the downtown and along transit corridors, areas known as priority development areas, would receive priority.
Greenbelts off limits: No projects funded with the money would be built in community separators or greenbelts, through land-use rules already prohibiting that.
Green projects: Projects that use climate-smart, all-electric or net zero construction methods would be prioritized.
The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday unanimously supported a spending plan for the $124 million housing bond on the November ballot, but only after deadlocking on the contentious issue of how much union labor should be used on projects built with the money.
Labor groups had asked the council to pass guidelines requiring 30 percent of the jobs go to union workers — 20 percent union apprentices and 10 percent journeymen to train them — arguing that people building the housing should be able to afford to live in it.
But under pressure from business groups including those representing nonunion contractors, the council deadlocked 3-3 on the full 30 percent union requirement. Moments later it voted 6-0 to approve a plan earmarking 20 percent of the jobs for union apprentices — but no job guarantees for union journeymen.
The ideological impasse, which has been simmering for weeks, frustrated many of the council members and union members who attended the meeting. Mayor Chris Coursey said it was imperative that the disagreement not imperil the bond’s chances at the ballot box.
If we stay on track with city-centered growth and greenbelt protection, Sonoma County can usher in new era of thriving, affordable neighborhoods in cities and towns near jobs, schools and transit. If they stray, we could face a generation of scattered development on the urban edge and across the countryside that will cost us far more in public health, climate costs, congestion and loss of water and environmental quality, to say nothing of the natural beauty and the high quality of life that we love and enjoy in Sonoma County.
The tragic loss of homes in the October fires and the critical need for more affordable homes countywide is prompting a bold new look at how we revitalize our communities in Sonoma County. Greenbelt Alliance and our allies are looking forward, not backward, to meet the challenge of providing affordable homes to people who are vital to our communities and economy: teachers, doctors, restaurant cooks, winery and vineyard employees, young professionals and families and others. And we are convinced we can do this while ensuring the protection of our health and environment.
That is why we support investment in housing in our downtowns and existing neighborhoods to provide housing across the income spectrum while upholding environmental protections and longstanding growth policies. We reject recently published claims that we need to weaken environmental standards in order to recover and rebuild after last year’s fires.
To the contrary, our county has the chance to be on the cutting edge of creating a new generation of climate-friendly neighborhoods as we rebuild and invigorate new development.
Brian Ling, CEO of the Sonoma County Alliance, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
We all love Sonoma County, but the protections we have implemented, such as growth ordinances, urban growth boundaries, community separators, the open space district and an incredibly public and intensive approval process, have led to our housing crisis of under supply, over demand and incredibly high prices (even before the fires). Our residents need to universally support the projects that are being proposed within current general plan guidelines, particularly those within transit-oriented and other priority development areas. We (NIMBYS too!)voted in these protections to support the growth of new urbanism concepts. We need to support these projects now.
Today’s housing crisis is a product of land-use decisions made over the past three decades combined with a significant increase in unnecessary and/or duplicative rules and regulations. There is no question that the October fires put an exclamation point on the housing crisis. However, it is imperative to reverse this trend of housing barriers before the community further taxes ourselves toward a solution.
The Board of Supervisors, the Santa Rosa City Council and their planning departments should be commended for implementing policies to expedite rebuilding in the fire zones and priority development areas. However, additional opportunities remain that must be applied to all development within the respective general plans, not just within the fire zones. The Sonoma County Alliance believes taking action is required to positively impact new housing opportunities.
Martin Espinoza, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Windsor voters overwhelmingly approved a 22-year extension to the town’s urban growth boundary, endorsing a plan established in the 1990s to limit sprawl and focus development inside core areas.
Measure H won with 74.8 percent of the ballots cast in Tuesday’s election, which was conducted entirely by mail.
The measure expanded the area for development, adding three parcels totaling 22.5 acres and zoned for light industrial use. The additional parcels will allow existing businesses to expand their operations within the boundary, said Windsor Mayor Debora Fudge.
“This vote means that the boundary for Windsor will remain for the next 22 years,” Fudge said.
Fudge said the urban growth boundary is a necessary tool to protect local agriculture and to maintain the region’s rural quality, which she said gives Sonoma County its high quality of life.
“The last thing people up here want is to become another Silicon Valley, where the cities run into each other without any green spaces,” she said.
Read more at: Windsor voters approve 22-year extension of urban growth boundary
Tom Gogola, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN It would be inaccurate to say that the fire-limiting qualities of so-called urban growth boundaries and community separators were vindicated in the North Bay fires.
After all, as Teri Shore notes, the catastrophic Tubbs fire swept through the Fountaingrove neighborhood, crossed the community separator there, jumped into Santa Rosa’s urban growth boundary (UGB) and then burned it up.
Shore, regional director at the Greenbelt Alliance, has embraced UGBs and community separators. Urban growth boundaries took root decades ago in places like San Jose, Boulder, Colo., and Sonoma County as part of a new urbanism vernacular of “livable cities,” “walkable cities,” “resilient cities” and other sobriquets to indicate a civic emphasis on high-density development in order to keep the surrounding lands pristine in their agricultural and biodiverse glory—as they set out to reduce sprawl, not for fire protection per se, but to save farms and communities and local cultures. The community separators indicate the area between developed areas which comprise the urban growth boundary.
It would be a “huge leap to say that the community separator or urban growth boundary could have prevented [the fires],” Shore says. “On the other hand, it could have been worse if we had built more outside of the city boundaries.”
In other words, the regional UGBs may have played a role in the fires akin to the “chicken soup rule” when you’re sick: in the event of a catastrophic fire, UGBs can’t hurt, and they might even help limit the damage to property.
“We’re thinking through it,” says Shore of the relationship between preventing fires and the rebuilding path forward, and the role of greenbelts in the rebuild.
“I don’t know if there’s a correlation,” she says, “but clearly keeping our growth within the town and cities, instead of sprawling out, potentially reduces the impact from wildfires.”
Read more at: Blazing Speed | News | North Bay Bohemian
Environmental groups, including the Greenbelt Alliance, support Windsor’s proposal, although they said the town should consider charging developers to offset the loss of agricultural lands and protect them elsewhere in the town’s jurisdiction.
Almost 20 years ago, Windsor voters approved an urban growth boundary designed to keep a greenbelt and discourage sprawl. Now they are being asked to do it again.
The Town Council last week scheduled a special election for Nov. 7 to extend the life of the boundary encircling the town for another 22 years — until 2040 — with slight modifications.
“I’m really proud that this boundary has held for 20 years and that it will basically hold for 22 more. That’s 42 years,” Mayor Debora Fudge said of the expected enactment by voters.
This time around, the council is asking voters not only to reaffirm the boundary, but slightly expand it by adding 22 acres of agricultural land south of Shiloh Road to the town’s future jurisdiction.
Town Council members say they want to accommodate two existing Windsor businesses with expansion plans.
“It’s to keep our valuable business partners in Windsor,” Fudge said.
Read more at: Windsor looks to extend the life of its urban growth boundary | The Press Democrat
Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On an already bulging ballot, Sonoma County voters this fall will be asked whether to extend open space protections that for the past 20 years have helped shield more than 17,000 acres of farm and untouched lands from large-scale development. The Board of Supervisors last week voted to place on the Nov. 8 ballot a measure extending for another two decades the county’s longstanding rule requiring property owners seek additional voter approval for projects such as large housing subdivisions, for example, or commercial projects on largely undeveloped county lands separating cities.
Open space advocates argue such protections affecting buffer zones between cities, known technically as community separators, help curb urban sprawl and contain growth. They do not prevent development outright, but make it more difficult by requiring voter approval to increase the intensity of development in designated rural areas. The protections, in place since 1996 and 1998, are set to expire at the end of 2016 and 2018, respectively, though other rules regarding the parcels will remain in place.
“This doesn’t remove development potential. Whatever people are allowed to do now, they’ll still be allowed to do,” said Teri Shore, regional director for the North Bay office of Greenbelt Alliance, the nonprofit spearheading the initiative. “This is essential if we want to maintain our rural landscape. The voter protections simply help strengthen the community separators.”
Supervisors last week approved a parallel proposal through a general plan amendment that will triple the amount of land included in the buffer zones. The new greenbelts, slated for final approval by supervisors in August, include 37,700 acres of largely undeveloped county land north of Santa Rosa, east of Sebastopol, around Cloverdale and Healdsburg, south of Petaluma and between Penngrove and Cotati.