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A divided City Council waived a key design requirement Tuesday for a subdivision in southwest Santa Rosa whose developers argued that affordable housing trumped design guidelines requiring strips of grass between the road and sidewalk.

The decision split the council 4-3 between those who felt affordable housing was badly needed in the area and those who felt the residents of Roseland deserved to have well-designed neighborhood streets.

"I don't want to have a planter strip get in the way of creating some more affordable housing for our community," Councilman Ernesto Olivares said.

Other council members agreed with city staff that the developers were trying to put too many homes on the property, resulting in tiny front and backyards and the elimination of planter strips that some felt are an important feature of walkable communities.

"They've crammed too much into too small of a space," Vice Mayor Robin Swinth said.

The developers Michael Gasparini and Allan Henderson want to build a 167-unit residential project on about 12 acres of bare land just outside city limits between Dutton Avenue and the railroad tracks.

The men said they worked for years to clean up the property, which they described as a toxic junkyard with numerous abandoned cars and 60,000 old tires disposed of the on property. They said they removed 7,000 tons of "lightly contaminated" soil.

The property is outside the city limits, but they want to hook up to the city water supply. Before they can do so, the city must confirm that all the other utilities in the project conform with city standards. That's because it is expected that someday the property will become part of Santa Rosa, and it should conform to its standards, such as street and sidewalk width.

Planter strips are required by the city because they create green space, a place for trees to grow and absorb runoff.

"In Santa Rosa, planter strips are a key part of high quality development," planner Erin Morris said.

But when the developers switched the project from one with private streets to one with public streets, they needed to find a way to fit the wider streets into the plan, and did so by removing the planter strips. Effort to create "bulb outs" of greenery on street corners did not work because they made the streets narrower than the 20-foot standard, Morris said.

"It's difficult to meet every little nuance of county and city design requirements," Gasparini said.

Much of the debate focused on whether the project was creating enough affordable housing to justify cutting the developers a break on the planter strip design feature.

Affordable housing advocates argued that the need in the city was so great that the project shouldn't be held up over a narrow strip of grass.

Housing advocate David Grabill called the project's affordable housing component "an incredible gift" given that was being constructed with no public subsidies. There are 32 low-income housing units, which he valued at $10 million.

Mayor Scott Bartley argued that when he was on the Planning Commission, they came up with the design guidelines for small-lot subdivisions and found that the streetscape made all the difference between communities that worked and those that didn't.

"To my mind, they are just shoehorning too much into this site," Bartley said.

Olivares, Erin Carlstrom, Gary Wysocky and Jake Ours voted in favor, while Mayor Scott Bartley, Swinth and Julie Combs voted against.

The project now goes back to the county for final design approval.

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