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Language for a proposed voter measure to loosen Healdsburg's growth limits is up for approval at Monday's City Council meeting.

After six months and seven public meetings by a committee that studied the issue, the council is poised to incorporate the group's recommendations into a draft ordinance for a future ballot measure.

The proposal is intended to ease a growth cap on home construction to provide flexibility for new types of development, especially near the city gateway now dominated by a lumberyard and the area around the train depot.

In the late 1990s, rapid residential growth and construction of subdivisions like Parkland Farms at the city's north end spawned a voter initiative intended to preserve Healdsburg's small-town character.

Measure M, approved by voters in 2000, limits the number of building permits the city can issue to an average of 30 per year over three years, not to exceed a total of 90.

Largely due to the housing slump, Healdsburg has averaged only 13 units annually over the past dozen years, according to city planners, much less than what is allowed under the existing ordinance.

But planning officials say that for projects to pencil out — especially with the higher density envisioned for a vibrant downtown — developers need to be able to build more units at once.

As a result, an eight-member committee recommended the city allow developers to build up to 510 new dwelling units over 15 years.

That compares to 450 that would be allowed in that same period under current voter-approved growth ordinance.

"The changes being proposed are not inordinately different from what we've already got," said Councilman Tom Chambers, who headed up the Growth Management Advisory Committee that came up with the recommendations.

The amended growth management ordinance, however, would allow more units to be built initially.

The earliest it could get on the ballot is the next regularly scheduled election, in 2014.

If approved, the ordinance would start with a "bank" of 60 building permits for new homes. Thirty additional permits would be added to the bank each year. No more than 70 permits would be allowed to be issued each year.

Low-income and affordable units would be exempt, as they are now under Measure M.

Jim Winston, the author of Measure M, who lives just outside city limits, said Friday he still thinks a revision to Measure M is "totally unnecessary based on the history of the existing GMO."

But he said he will remain neutral and not mount a campaign to oppose the proposed changes.

Winston said he still has concerns "we could have some explosions of growth at the beginning" when the new ordinance takes effect, even if the new units are restricted to no more than 70 annually.

"I always preferred phasing where you do slower (growth) over a longer period of time, so the infrastructure can keep up," Winston said.

But he said "it's balanced in my own mind by saying the net result is almost the same" when it comes to how many units would be allowed over 15 years.

Under the committee recommendations, unused allocations can be carried forward and used in the future, something which Measure M does not allow.

The "use it or lose it" feature resulted in more than 200 unused — and unusable — allocations over the past 12 years, according to Planning Commissioner Phil Luks, a member of the committee.

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Housing "will always be constructed in fits and starts, and a plan that focuses on a long-term average rather than a short-term limit is the right way to deal with reality," Luks said in an e-mail.

"What the existing and the recommended GMO (growth management ordinance) do is limit large projects and space them out over time, so the city can thoughtfully consider their impacts," he said.

Chambers, the council member, said that the goal in altering Measure M "is not to open up rampant development."

He said the intent is to maintain the city's character and provide a variety of housing, not a downtown dominated by hotels and tourist uses.

The new ordinance also would allow no more than 226 new units over 15 years in the central Healdsburg Avenue area.

Winston said that will still provide for city-centered growth, but avoid traffic congestion and "too much in one place."

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