In slow-growing Healdsburg, a proposal for 40 single-family detached homes is almost certain to stir controversy, especially if they are squeezed onto a 3-acre site.

That's what happened Tuesday night when residents turned out in force at a Planning Commission meeting to protest the "Midtowne-Healdsburg" project, which they said was a bad fit for the neighborhood and would pack people and homes in like "sardines."

"We're shoehorning in a project that's simply too dense," agreed Planning Commission Chairwoman Jil Hales, who like her fellow commissioners could not support the proposal on the 3.2 acres on the east side of Healdsburg Avenue, between Monte Vista Avenue and Ferrero Drive.

"You've tried to squish too much in there," Commissioner Kathi Engler told the development team from DRG Builders of Pleasant Hill.

Rather than vote to reject it outright, the commission continued the matter to allow the developers to resume talks with city staff and make modifications.

Commissioner Jerry Eddinger noted the project could actually be more dense, but not with single-family homes. Commissioners said that by redesigning the project to create some "eight-plexes" or apartment units it would create more open space overall.

While there was some support for the architectural style of the two-story houses, they were criticized for their six-foot proximity to each other, canyon-like lack of sunlight on the sides and small, average 2,200-square-foot lots.

Residents in neighboring Piedmont Terrace said it would lead to traffic headaches on their streets, and make it even tougher to make turns to and from Healdsburg Avenue at peak times.

"We'll have collisions," resident Mike Williams told the commission. "It's 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag," he said of the density of the project.

Traffic consultants said although the project would result in 383 additional daily vehicle trips, levels of service at nearby intersections would be within acceptable levels.

Applicant Doyle Heaton, president of DRG Builders, said immediately after the meeting "I'm just going to talk to the city" but declined to elaborate about his plans, saying, "I can't tell you."

His proposal of 40 houses, averaging 12.6 units per acre, included two-car garages, 27 guest parking spaces, pedestrian walkways and a quarter-acre private park.

Heaton told the Planning Commission he has been building homes in Northern California for 50 years and has built more than 2,000 of them in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Napa.

Plans called for a homeowners association and three different home models in a variety of color schemes in Midtowne Healdsburg. Six of the proposed lots would be for affordable housing.

But nearby residents said they were shocked and even "horrified" by the proposed density, including the proximity of the homes to each other.

"In my opinion, this kind of concentration of houses on tiny lots doesn't belong anywhere in Healdsburg and certainly not adjacent to an upscale subdivision with lots in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 7,000 square feet or even larger," said Al Loebel, a resident of Ferrero Drive. "The design of the houses, in order to fit them on the lots, is anything but pleasing to the eye. They are all two-story, skinny and long."

According to city records, the site has never been developed beyond a single-family home that exists there currently, although it's been proposed for various projects.

In 1997, the city approved 32 townhomes on the site, but it was never developed.

The city's general plan designates the property as high-density residential with a potential for up to 64 units.

City officials said it resulted in large part from pressure from the state to create more housing in a lawsuit several decades old.

But the existing zoning — multi-family residential — does not allow for detached, single-family residential units, something the developer is seeking to change.

Developers told the city prior to the meeting Tuesday that they wanted to break ground in the spring of 2015 with 16 homes planned for construction initially and the remaining 24 homes built within four years.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.