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Santa Rosa is set to once again rewrite its zoning rules to grease the skids for businesses wanting to set up shop in the city.

The City Council will decide Tuesday whether to be more welcoming to downtown wineries and tasting rooms, to big-box retailers considering the site once eyed for a Lowe's Home Improvement Center and to grocery stores hoping to locate in an area starved of supermarkets.

The measures being considered are the city's latest effort to boost economic activity by cutting red tape for new projects and streamlining the permit processes.

"We're trying to improve the opportunities for economic development," said Chuck Regalia, director of the city's community development department.

The proposed changes are built on those approved by the City Council in 2010 that make it simpler for businesses to locate in certain types of buildings and easier to get land-use permits.

Last year, the council went a step further, deciding to proactively amend the General Plan for some properties with outdated zoning and relax other zoning requirements that could prove prohibitive to businesses wanting to locate or expand in Santa Rosa.

Making it clear where wineries and wine-tasting rooms are allowed makes perfect sense for the largest city in the Sonoma County Wine Country, Regalia said.

"Healdsburg does it. Sonoma does it. Why shouldn't Santa Rosa do it?" he said.

Under the city's current zoning rules, tasting rooms are only permitted in existing wineries, which themselves are only permitted in industrial areas. Stand-alone tasting rooms can win approval but are treated the same as liquor stores and require lengthier permitting.

City planning staff realized the zoning code needed updating after being approached by property owners proposing wine-related uses. One was longtime downtown business Corrick's Stationery Store on Fourth Street, which wants to add a frame shop and tasting room for Santa Rosa's Ancient Oak Cellars.

Under the proposed changes, tasting rooms would be allowed in the downtown commercial district, as well as in the area around Railroad Square zoned "transit village mixed use" in anticipation of the future train station. Boutique wineries, those producing fewer than 10,00 cases, would be allowed in those same zones with a minor use permit.

Larger wineries, those producing over 10,000 cases per year, would need a more comprehensive major conditional use permit to address potential conflicts with neighbors.

Similar changes are also proposed for other general commercial and community shopping center districts. For commercial areas closer to neighborhoods, the city proposes allowing tasting rooms and brewpubs with conditional use permits. Another change would allow brewpubs in business parks and light industrial areas as outgrowths of existing brewery or winery operations.

The changes received no opposition from the public, were approved unanimously by the planning commission and will likely enjoy similar support from the council.

Split over use of funds

The General Plan amendment and zoning changes for the Yolanda Avenue property once eyed for a Lowe's Home Improvement store are likely to be more controversial.

The council split 4-3 on whether to spend up to $110,000 of city funds on the project. Supporters argued that it made sense for the city to remove the zoning barriers from the 12.5-acre site to make it easier for a future development to occur. Others called it inappropriate for taxpayers to fund a cost normally borne by a developer.

The property owner later contributed $50,000 toward the effort.

A key obstacle in developing the site has been a 2.7-acre parcel designated for medium density housing, which would require a lengthy and uncertain process to remove by amending the city's General Plan.

So the city went ahead and did that leg work itself, holding the public hearings and performing the environmental review needed to make the change the council will consider on Tuesday.

The proposal calls for rezoning much of the site to retail and business services, and identifying three other sites in the city that would be better suited to medium-density housing, which allows about 13 units per acre.

The three sites are on Montecito Avenue, Petaluma Hill Road and Meda Avenue, south of the fairgrounds. The 18.2-acre Montecito Avenue site where Oliver's Market is located has long been eyed for additional housing. Planners agreed that the density could be increased to 180 units, 35 units more than currently allowed.

They also concluded the 4.6-acre undeveloped site at 1865 Meda Avenue could deal with 59 units, 13 more than now allowed.

And the 7.7-acre site on Petaluma Hill Road could hold 52 homes under current zoning but would be allowed to hold 100.

"We wanted to give the council the ability to look at several sites," said planner Bill Rose.

The staff report recommends that the council approve the changes for all three sites, adding 96 medium-density units to offset the loss of 35 at the Yolanda Avenue site.

Regalia said the city is making that recommendation because properties appropriate for higher density housing are in short supply.

Residents of the Harvest Park neighborhood of single-family homes have come out forcefully against the changes, calling the higher densities on the adjacent Petaluma Hill property "untenable and repugnant."

"This would gravely affect all aspects and the overall quality of our semi-rural, single family, quiet and peaceful subdivision," wrote Summercreek Drive resident Megan Sweeley.

Other residents noted the higher densities could mean four-story buildings of up to 45 feet high beside their homes.

Addressing 'food desert'

The final zoning change before the council Tuesday involves making it easier for large supermarkets to locate within existing buildings in the southeast part of the city.

This area has been labeled a "food desert" by the USDA, meaning too many low-income people have too little access to large grocery stores.

The area roughly bounded by Highway 101 to the west, Highway 12 to the north, Petaluma Hill Road to the east and Mountain View Avenue to the south has 7,943 people living in it, many of whom are low income and 33.1 percent of whom live more than a mile from the closet large grocery store, according to the city.

Planner Erin Morris explained that because low-income people are less able to afford a car, living more than a mile from a grocery store can make it a challenge to buy fresh foods, causing them to rely on convenience stores and fast food.

The zoning changes would allow a large grocery store -- defined as bigger than 20,000 square feet -- to locate in an existing building without a conditional use permit, a process that can take months and cost thousands of dollars to obtain.

A grocery store is interested in occupying some of the retail space in the Santa Rosa center once occupied by Circuit City and Borders, all of which are now closed, commercial real estate broker Tom Laugero earlier told the Planning Commission. The requirements of additional permits could kill the deal, he said.

Planning commissioners expressed unanimous support for the changes.

"I think this will create an oasis in the food desert," said Commissioner David Poulsen. "I'm all for it."

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

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