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Growth in Healdsburg has sputtered to the point where only a handful of residential building permits have been issued in the past few years.

But that hasn't prevented a vigorous debate on whether to relax a voter-approved ordinance that limits the number of new market-rate homes to 30 per year.

The catalyst for reviewing the growth control policy came from the recent Central Healdsburg Avenue special study, which crafted a vision for how to redevelop the gateway to town, now dominated by a lumber yard and the area around the train station.

City planners said the higher-density housing envisioned for the central downtown would be difficult to achieve without allowing more units, since only a limited number of building permits could be allocated in one time period.

Jim Winston, author of Measure M, the growth ordinance approved by voters a dozen years ago, worries that relaxing it too much will usher in "an explosion of growth" that will alter Healdsburg's small-town character.

"This could be a crossroads with what's really going to happen with Healdsburg in the long-term," Winston said.

City Councilman Tom Chambers said it isn't about opening the door to rampant growth, but making sure there is a diversity of housing along with hotels and tourist uses.

"I think everyone wants Healdsburg to retain the character it has and not become something we regret," he said Thursday. "It's not pro-development versus no-development. It's 'how do we encourage the right kind of development?' "

Chambers is the chairman of an eight-member committee that has been studying possible revisions to Measure M and is charged with making a recommendation to the City Council.

The expectation is that the committee will recommend a revised growth measure. But it is still uncertain whether it would go on the 2014 ballot, or be the subject of a special election next year.

Even Winston has been willing to tweak the ordinance and allow up to 35 residential building permits per year and up to twice that many multi-family units. But he said the number of units should not exceed 105 in a three-year period, or 210 in a six-year period.

Affordable-housing units would continue to be exempt.

On the other side of the spectrum is Jim Brush, a planning commissioner and accountant, who said there should be a 10-year rolling average that allows for the retroactive use of units that were allocated, but never built.

For example, since 2000, there have been 143 building permits issued under the growth management policy, but 217 unused allocations.

Winston said "Brush's proposal to expand to a 10-year rolling average is not growth management," which he defined as building "slowly and orderly over time."

With Brush's proposal, he said there might be 150 units built in one fell swoop.

Brush replied that developers tend to build out their projects over six to 12 years, not all at once.

"We're dealing with a bogeyman that doesn't exist," he said.

The exchange came at last week's meeting of the growth management ordinance committee.

Councilman Jim Wood said smart, or compact growth, can only be achieved by allowing a greater number of units and more flexibility. But he said there will be limits.

"I don't think the politics of the community will allow a monster project to come to us," Wood said. "I don't think the public sentiment is ready for a 200-unit project."

Committee member Jon Worden, an architect, said there are not many places in town that can accommodate that many units anyway.

He said the growth management ordinance has led to unintended consequences, making it difficult for developers to cover the costs of infrastructure.

In one case, he said developers proposing senior housing within walking distance of downtown were deterred by the growth cap and dropped their plans.

The concern, he said, is that Healdsburg is becoming too visitor-oriented. He said there needs to be more flexibility to enable housing diversity, such as for seniors and row housing for young families.

"We want to remain a real place for real people to live and not turn into Disneyland," Worden said. "We're not proposing to flood the town with a bunch of gargantuan projects."

But Warren Watkins, a retired math teacher who brought a lawsuit against Saggio Hills, the luxury hotel and residential development approved but not yet constructed, said people are indeed worried about large projects.

"People feel Healdsburg is at a tipping point," he said.

The committee meets next at 6 p.m. Sept. 5 at City Hall.

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