For the first time in seven years, Rohnert Park leaders are talking about a big housing subdivision on the horizon, and they are talking about it in positive terms.
The development pendulum, it seems, is swinging the other way.
Once there was a time when Sonoma County floundered as it tried to get a grip on runaway growth. That produced building-permit limits, urban growth boundaries and the political understanding that growth-at-any-cost came with very steep costs. There followed a time when growth slowed to a pace that seemed acceptable to a majority, and even allowed for some development that contributed to the quality of life in communities, instead of detracting from it. All was well with the world. When the huge University District subdivision was approved in Rohnert Park in 2006, Councilman Jake Mackenzie declared, "The land-use wars of the 1990s are over."
Then the housing bubble burst, the economy tanked and the issue of development disappeared from the political landscape. In the past six years or so, about the only time "growth" has been discussed in the political arena it has been as a concept rather than as a reality, as in the case of the brouhaha over Plan Bay Area.
Actual on-the-ground subdivisions, though, seemed a dim memory. Other than a handful of relatively small projects in Petaluma and Santa Rosa, and a few scattered apartment projects, the economy has put a cork in new-home construction.
But the cork is coming loose, and that's welcome news in Rohnert Park.
Jeremy Hay reported this morning that Brookfield Homes is "getting back on track" with the 1,645-home University District project. Dormant since its approval seven years ago, its developer has begun talks with city staff to get things moving again, including making some changes in the project. City Council members take this as a good sign.
"We need some new housing," Mayor Pam Stafford told Hay. "The economies of cities depend on some kind of growth or some kind of draw for businesses."
This is the model upon which our economy has been built. Like a shark that must keep moving or die, cities need to keep growing or they'll go broke. Rohnert Park leaders made this even more apparent last month when they decided to invest $13 million in a new sewer line on the east side of town with the expectation that it will generate $88 million in development fees, including from the University District.
"Sometimes you have to spend money to make money," City Manager Gabe Gonzalez told Hay at the time.
I've got no argument with that, and I've got no objection to new development that's been planned and vetted and approved by elected officials working to balance all of the needs of community.
What I worry about – and you should too – is the needs that have been pent up these past six or seven years causing so much pressure that our elected officials feel compelled to make up for lost time. This doesn't just apply to Rohnert Park; it can happen anywhere.
Already we see the University District developer playing the "financial feasibility" card to seek concessions from the city that weren't available in 2006. Some council members, including Mackenzie, Amy Ahanotu and Joe Callinan, feel that some bigger homes on bigger lots – approved in 2006 – are needed to spread things out a little bit in a subdivision with 1,236 detached single-family homes. But Kevin Pohlson of Brookfield Homes said the market no longer supports the larger homes, and that squeezing even more homes onto the property will make the project financially feasible. According to Hay's story, Pohlson argued that he could build 30 or 40 more small-lot houses if the company is allowed to scrap the 26 "rural estates" in the approved project.