Plans to transform a vacant hospital in Bennett Valley into housing for at-risk young adults advanced on a unanimous vote Thursday following an emotional hearing where supporters characterized the effort as a moral obligation to help the needy and detractors denounced it as unfit for and unwelcomed by the neighborhood.
Supporters erupted in applause as the Planning Commission voted 7-0 to grant a permit and zoning change to the Dream Center project proposed for the former Warrack Hospital site at the intersection of Summerfield Road and Hoen Avenue.
Commissioner Curtis Byrd said it was "breaking my heart" to see such an important project pit neighbor against neighbor and for some residents to take a "not in my backyard" stance against it.
"We have a social responsibility. Those that have are supposed to help those that don't," Byrd said, choking up as he spoke. "I'm honestly in tears over that."
The vote sends the Social Advocates for Youth project to Santa Rosa's City Council for final approval.
The nearly six-hour hearing aired starkly different views of the project, with passionate calls for commissioners to support young people in need and some residents of southeast Santa Rosa pleading for the project's impacts on their neighborhood to be studied further.
"We're fighting for the soul of our town," Fred Ptucha said. "Will we be a community that offers compassion, empathy and support for the most vulnerable and needy members of society, or will we let our actions be governed by anxiety, fear and selfish unwillingness to help the most at-risk people in our community?"
Ptucha urged the commissioners to remember that many foster children often become homeless because they lack affordable places to live after they leave foster care at age18 and need a supportive environment to help them overcome histories of abuse and neglect by their parents.
"I urge you not to abandon our kids," he said. "Give them a place to call home, to heal, to learn, to grown and to dream."
Critics of the project, which proposes to house up to 63people ages 18-24 in transitional housing units and a smaller emergency homeless shelter, claimed it is too big, creates too many potential public safety risks and ignores the will of neighbors.
"I just hope that SAY's dream doesn't become Bennett Valley's nightmare," said Sherry Nelson, whose parents own land housing a child care center near the project.
An overflow crowd began lining up at City Hall as early as 1:30 p.m. for the 4 p.m. hearing, and by 3:45 p.m., several hundred people stood hoping to enter the chambers.
"We're going to be here a long time," Chairwoman Patti Cisco said at the start of the hearing.
Many project supporters wore bright yellow T-shirts reading "Say YES to Dreams," while some residents of Bennett Valley held signs reading "Bennett Valley Citizens -#8212; Citizens Unite."
Planner Noah Housh explained that the commission was being asked to rezone eight parcels covering 8.7 acres, approve his conclusion that the project will have no significant environmental impacts, and approve a permit setting several conditions governing the use of the property.
SAY executive director Matt Martin said the organization did significant community outreach that resulted in a number of positive changes to the project since it was first proposed last year.