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Santa Rosa officials may have found a way to kick-start the annexation of Roseland and save some money in the process.

On Tuesday the City Council unanimously supported its application for a $647,000 grant to help focus future growth in the city's southwest area around areas near transit hubs.

If it wins the grant from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, city officials say the planning process that follows could speed annexation by engaging residents about the area's future and by completing some of the bureaucratic legwork needed before annexation can happen.

"There is a real good opportunity for community engagement here," Community Development Director Chuck Regalia told the council. "I think it'll give us the opportunity to create excitement about the future annexation."

The annexation of Roseland and other areas south of city limits has been beset by decades of wrangling and delays. A push to add Roseland and its more than 6,000 residents to Santa Rosa gathered steam in 2007 but stalled in 2008 after the city and county differed on how much it would cost the city to take over services to the area, especially law enforcement. The economic collapse has kept the issue largely on the back burner ever since.

City officials who first learned of the grant were initially skeptical because of the staff time involved in such a planning effort, Regalia said.

But once they studied it further, they realized it could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in future environmental review costs, Regalia said.

"It took us a while to get on board with how to think about it, but once we did, it became a real important thing to us," he said.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority has received $1.4 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to help fund planning for growth around Bay Area transit hubs. The goal is to focus future housing and job growth around such "planned development areas" to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Sonoma County has applied for $800,000 to help it plan for job growth around the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and the Springs area of Sonoma Valley. Santa Rosa has applied for the balance of the funds.

The application proposes a two-year planning process covering an 1,800-acre area in the southwest Santa Rosa area focused around the Southside Bus Transfer Center at the intersection of Burbank and Hearn avenues. The "transfer center" is actually little more than two small bus shelters on either side of a cul-de-sac at the north end of Southwest Community Park.

Of the 1,800 acres covered by the planning effort, 1,200 are in the city and 600 are in the Roseland neighborhood's unincorporated county area.

The city will likely hire a consultant to complete the bulk of the planning effort, said Lisa Kranz, Santa Rosa's advance planner. Any future environmental impact report for annexation would likely be able to piggyback off some of the environmental work done for this planning effort, Kranz said.

The savings could be significant, possibly in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Regalia said.

Hours before the City Council met Tuesday to discuss the planning effort, some Roseland denizens welcomed the prospect of eventual annexation, while others were concerned whether it would mean an increase in municipal taxes.

"I would probably pay a little more in taxes, but I think it's a good idea," said Blanca Caishpal, owner of Novedades Blanqui, a clothing shop that specializes in quincea?ra gowns and other formal wear.

Caishpal, who has run her shop on Sebastopol Road for seven years, said "unifying" the city by ridding it of unincorporated islands such as the one in Roseland would clear up a lot of confusion. She said that whenever she goes to the state Board of Equalization to pay taxes, she has to constantly explain that she is outside the city's limits.

"It causes confusion whenever I have to do any paperwork," she said. "Unity leads to strength and I think the city would be stronger if it were more unified."

David Smith, who lives on Rose Avenue, said he would favor annexation of unincorporated Roseland neighborhoods "as long as they don't raise our taxes."

At the urging of the City Council, Santa Rosa planning officials have been working since the spring to outline the timeline and costs for any annexation effort. Regalia said he plans to give the council an update in February, including how this planning grant dovetails with the annexation plan.

The October shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff's deputy, which took place on Moorland Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa, has renewed political pressure to annex the Roseland area, as well as other unincorporated islands.

The site where Lopez was killed falls outside the proposed planning effort's boundaries but inside the city's voter-approved urban growth boundary. The hope for some, including community activists who have rallied around the Andy Lopez shooting, is that the Moorland area will be included in future annexation efforts.

"There's no reason they should do it piecemeal. They should do the job that needs to be done," said Michael Rothenberg, a member of the Andy Lopez Organizing Group, which among other things is calling for the annexation of unincorporated parts of southwest Santa Rosa.

"We feel that the community will be better served," he said. "Right now, it's just another territory in the county.

Rothenberg said annexation could give local residents a greater sense of civic pride and create a stronger sense of community.

"It gives everybody in adjacent neighborhoods equal services. You don't have someone in Santa Rosa next door to you getting better community services just because of that artificial boundary," he said.

"I think that people feel what happened to Andy wouldn't have happened if the police treated their neighborhood as part of the city and not like some second-rate frontier," he said.

Regalia called grant opportunity "very exciting" because it gets to the heart of what urban planning is all about.

"This is a chance to take a look at the whole area ... and talk about what might make life better in this part of the community," he said.

Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said it is no coincidence that just a few months after the Lopez shooting the city is moving aggressively to seize a grant opportunity aimed at improving an underserved area of the southwest.

"What you are seeing are seven council members who are very committed to this and are keeping staff on task for it," she said prior to the meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

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