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Santa Rosa City Council slashes development fees for downtown housing projects

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The council authorized reducing development fees over a five-year period as part of its downtown housing strategy, which envisions 3,400 apartment and condo units in the city center, mirroring a benchmark from a 2007 city plan. To date, only 100 of those downtown units have been built.

Santa Rosa is set to slash fees charged to builders in a bid to spur a new wave of high-rise housing development, part of a long-term overhaul of the city’s core envisioned more than a decade ago.

The City Council voted 6-0 on separate resolutions Tuesday night that together will result in immediate, sharp reductions in development fees tied to new housing for parks and infrastructure. The measures will also delay payment of fees charged for city utility hookups until the back end of a project, a sweetener that developers say makes it easier for new housing to pencil out.

It was the latest step in a series of City Council actions this year that are intended to speed the production of multi-family housing in the downtown area, now with a renovated transit center and a reunited Old Courthouse Square.

Council members were united in their praise for the measures, which come amid a housing crisis exacerbated by wildfires that last year wiped out more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa and 5,300 countywide.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8775929-181/santa-rosa-city-council-slashes

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We came, we planned, we were wrong

Pete Parkinson, NORTHERN NEWS (California Chapter of the American Planning Association)

You are all too familiar with the headline by now: California Is Burning.

Last fall, more than 6,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties (including my own home near Santa Rosa). Homes went up in flames in rural, sub-urban, and urban settings, including 3,000 homes lost within the city limits of Santa Rosa.

CalFire had designated some of those areas as very-high wildfire hazard; others (including my neighborhood) were considered “only” moderate wildfire hazard. Still other areas — like the suburban Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa where over 1,300 homes were lost — were not considered wildfire hazards at all.

This year has brought no relief. As I write (in mid-August), we’ve seen new wildfires sweep into the city of Redding and threaten Yosemite National Park. The Mendocino Complex, the largest wildfire in California history (eclipsing a record set only a few months ago in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties) continues to burn 45 miles north of Santa Rosa.

Wildfire hazards have been a consistent theme in my career as a planner and planning director in three northern California counties (Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Cruz). I have
overseen the preparation of General Plan Safety Elements, Local Hazard Mitigation Plans, and regulatory codes that addressed the full range of hazard management strategies, including road access, water supply, defensible space, and structural design. The underlying theme of these efforts was a belief that wildfire risks can be managed to an acceptable level of public safety, if not eliminated altogether. In fact,
I cannot recall any development project that was denied, or where the density was substantially reduced, because of known wildfire hazards.

The firestorm that swept into our Santa Rosa community last October has fundamentally changed my thinking about development in California’s fire-prone landscapes. Now, 10 months post-catastrophe, let me offer a few lessons learned from one planner’s perspective.

Read more at https://norcalapa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Oct18.pdf

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Santa Rosa City Council to consider downtown height incentive plan

Will Carruthers, SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE

This weekend, Santa Rosa celebrated its 150th birthday. But, despite its age, Sonoma County’s largest city has never really grown up.

At a September 10 meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development Subcommittee, city staff presented the conclusions of a forthcoming report on why the city lacks tall residential buildings downtown and unveiled a plan to encourage developers to build them.

The report, based on suggestions from the Council of Infill Developers, will suggest legislative tactics to encourage developers to build market rate and affordable housing projects on vacant and underutilized land within the city, a process known as infill development.

According to the report, the reasons for developers’ reluctance include:

–Market demand for tall buildings with less parking remains “unproven,” making developers wary of investing in Santa Rosa.

–A perception from developers that the city’s staff and politicians lack enthusiasm for taller buildings.

–Prohibitively high permitting fees discourage developers from building higher.

Read more at https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/santa-rosa-city-council-to-consider-density-incentive-plan

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The sword and the shield: Is CEQA to blame for the North Bay’s housing crisis?

Tom Gogola, THE NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

The landmark California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 was intended as a shield against construction projects that imperiled the environment. But in a case of unintended consequences, critics charge that the powerful law has been wielded as a sword by labor groups, environmentalists and neighborhood groups to defeat proposed housing developments. The result, they argue, is that a well-intentioned law has driven up the cost and lowered the supply of affordable housing in the North Bay and California at large.

In a way, this is a tale of two competing points-of-view about CEQA. In one corner, CEQA critics decry the law as a leading impediment to building transit-oriented and infill housing in the state—and especially in urban regions such as Los Angeles and the greater North Bay. That’s the gist of a recent legal study by the San Francisco law firm Holland & Knight. The analysis was published in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

In the other corner are supporters of CEQA who say those claims are overstated, and perhaps wildly so, and that the real driver behind the region’s struggles to deal with its affordable housing crisis, or any housing for that matter, are the local agencies (zoning boards, planning commissions) that also must sign off on any proposed development.

That’s an argument advanced in another recent report published by UC Berkeley School of Law, called “Getting It Right,” which serves as a handy counterpoint to the Holland & Knight report.

This is more than an academic debate. The discussion comes at a key moment in the North Bay, which is still reeling from last year’s devastating wildfires that destroyed more than 5,000 homes in the region, making an acute housing crisis even worse.

Read more at https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/the-sword-and-the-shield/Content?oid=6374283

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A bold, divisive plan to wean Californians from cars

Conor Dougherty and Brad Plumer, THE NEW YORK TIMES

It’s an audacious proposal to get Californians out of their cars: a bill in the State Legislature that would allow eight-story buildings near major transit stops, even if local communities object.

The idea is to foster taller, more compact residential neighborhoods that wean people from long, gas-guzzling commutes, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

So it was surprising to see the Sierra Club among the bill’s opponents, since its policy proposals call for communities to be “revitalized or retrofitted” to achieve precisely those environmental goals. The California chapter described the bill as “heavy-handed,” saying it could cause a backlash against public transit and lead to the displacement of low-income residents from existing housing.

State Senator Scott Wiener, the bill’s sponsor, responded by accusing the group of “advocating for low-density sprawl.”

In a state where debates often involve shades of blue, it’s not uncommon for the like-minded to find themselves at odds. But the tensions over Mr. Wiener’s proposal point to a wider divide in the fight against climate change, specifically how far the law should go to reshape urban lifestyles.

Although many cities and states are embracing cleaner sources of electricity and encouraging people to buy electric vehicles, they are having a harder time getting Americans to drive less, something that may be just as important.

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/business/energy-environment/climate-density.html

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After fires, a push to fix housing crisis

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

As it emerged from the Great Recession and a moribund housing market, Sonoma County in 2011 needed seven years to build nearly 5,000 new homes.

The fires of October wiped a greater number of houses and apartments off the map here in a single day.
The unprecedented disaster deepened an existing housing crisis and fueled calls by local officials to dramatically accelerate the pace of new home construction — perhaps to a level never before seen in the county, even in the decadeslong building boom following World War II.

By two recent estimates, a yawning gap exists between the housing stock the county had before the fires — about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units — and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.

It could be as high as 30,000 units — equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol — according to county supervisors, who set that figure as an ambitious five-year building target that would include both the burn areas and surrounding communities.

“We are eroding the character of our county by not allowing people who work here to live here and be a part of the community,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. The county, he said, came up with its estimate of 30,000 homes “not as a hopeful aspiration, but as an analysis of how much we’re short from a healthy housing market.”

But some leaders in the local building and real estate industry say there is no conceivable way for the county to build 6,000 houses and apartments a year, equivalent to completing 16 homes a day. The obstacles, builders say, include insufficient levels of labor, materials and projects ready to go.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8011910-181/fires-fuel-a-daunting-push

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Windsor voters approve 22-year extension of urban growth boundary

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

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After fires, Sonoma County speeds sale of Santa Rosa property eyed for new apartments

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County has for several years wanted to sell a vacant building complex it owns in west Santa Rosa, but with the devastating October wildfires having intensified the region’s housing crisis, local officials now hope to get the property in the hands of a private developer faster than originally planned.
The county’s Community Development Commission this week released a request for developers to show their qualifications and interest in building new housing at 2150 W. College Ave. Prospective applicants have until 3 p.m. Monday to respond, and county supervisors could decide to move forward in some fashion the next day.
“We already had a housing shortage, and so every development that can be expedited and we can get out of the way in government to make stuff happen — I think that’s the order of the day,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director.
County officials previously estimated the 7.5-acre site could support 170 apartments. Van Vliet thinks the property could ultimately house closer to 200 units.
The commission bought the property, which was formerly the headquarters of the county Water Agency, for $4.2 million this summer and then kicked off a process to select an apartment developer. But after the fires last month wiped out 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock, along with thousands of other homes outside city limits, the county decided it needed to speed up the process as much as possible.
Read more at: After fires, Sonoma County speeds sale of Santa Rosa property eyed for new apartments

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Blazing speed: UGB's come up for a vote and post-fire rebuild plans come into focus

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

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Santa Rosa may boost housing densities in exchange for affordable units

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Finley Community Center Auditorium, 2060 W. College Ave, Santa Rosa

How much additional housing can — or should — your Santa Rosa neighborhood be asked to absorb?
The city is seeking feedback from the public Monday on its plan to dramatically increase housing densities throughout the city, especially downtown and near its two train stations.
The plan calls for increasing incentives known as density bonuses for developers that could allow up to 100 percent more housing units on a particular property than regular zoning would allow.
“This is an important tool in our tool chest to address the housing crisis,” said David Guhin, director of planning and economic development. “It’s not going to solve all of the issues, but it’s an important one.”
Currently, developers who build affordable units in their projects can be granted the right to build up to 35 percent more units than normal.
Read more at: Santa Rosa may boost housing densities in exchange for affordable units | The Press Democrat –