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Jim Winston lives about a mile outside Healdsburg city limits, but he's had outsized effect on determining how the town grows.

He wrote and helped pass a voter-approved measure in 2000 that restricted the number of new homes in Healdsburg to 30 per year.

Now he wants to serve on a city committee that will consider whether to relax the growth limit, thus provoking a controversy over whether a non-resident should be determining how many homes are built in Healdsburg.

"I do live just outside city limits," he said of his hilltop home on 46 acres off Limerick Lane. "It would seem to me under the circumstance an exception could be made, based on expertise and involvement."

Healdsburg City Council members debated the question this week and eventually decided that one member from outside the city — but within Healdsburg school district boundaries — will be eligible to sit on the eight-member committee that will weigh whether to loosen the growth cap. Winston lives in the school district, but there is no guarantee he will be selected.

"Will he look at it objectively?" Mayor Gary Plass asked of Winston's views on how many homes should be built.

Healdsburg voters a dozen years ago overwhelmingly approved the measure that restricts the number of new market-rate homes to 30 annually, or 90 in a three-year period.

But city planners say higher density housing envisioned for the central downtown will be difficult to develop without lifting the cap, since only a certain number of building permits can be allocated.

Winston told The Press Democrat he fears the committee scrutinizing the housing cap is stacked with people who are "part of the growth machine" and will come up with a recommendation that will double, or triple the growth rate.

"It's not broken," he said of the growth ordinance. "The only reason they want to change it is so we can have an explosion of growth in the gateway to the community that will affect our small-town character."

He said he is flexible to some change, but wants to avoid the type of rapid growth that Windsor and Rohnert Park went through.

Mayor Plass said review of the ordinance is warranted. "It's time to take a look at it: what worked and what didn't and what we can tweak to make it better. Does it still meet the present day needs?"

He said the reality is that since so-called Measure M passed, "there's been little, or no growth. So it did its job. Or maybe it's the economy."

Plass said Healdsburg has natural constraints to growth including the Russian River and peripheral agricultural zones, and there is no intent to expand the current urban boundary.

"We're doing what the voters want us to do — build infill," he said.

Winston previously hired a consultant as part of an ultimately unsuccessful effort to challenge geological studies for Saggio Hills, the proposed luxury resort and housing project approved for the north end of town.

He is a former floor covering company owner and amateur race car driver who also helped develop small, single-family subdivisions in Southern California

"For me, the issue is balance and process," Winston told the City Council this week. He said that none of the five committee members who studied the future development of the downtown area were involved in supporting the growth management ordinance.

"No one sitting at the table can represent the voter," he said. "It's not in the best interests of where we need to go as a community."

The body that will take on the growth question is an expansion of the the Central Healdsburg Avenue Special Study Area Committee. It is composed of City Councilman Tom Chambers, Planning Commissioners Jerry Eddinger and Phil Luks and public representatives Ray Holley and Jon Worden.

City Council members previously decided they wanted to expand the committee, which looked at the future of the downtown, to eight members who would take on the issue of whether to relax growth limits.

Councilman Jim Wood was added with two more members still to be chosen.

After the committee makes a recommendation, the growth question could be put before voters as early as the November ballot.

Mayor Plass said he initially told Winston that the committee is restricted to city residents. City Councilman Steve Babb said committee members should be residents "so we don't get tangled up into other boundaries."

But Councilman Wood said Winston's input would be valuable and he should be interviewed as a potential committee candidate. He said later he was not specifically advocating Winston be selected.

Council members Chambers and Susan Jones said they could see the benefit of allowing someone with Winston's expertise to sit on the committee, yet also see the point that it should be limited to Healdsburg residents.

In the end council members agreed to allow applicants to come from outside the city, but confined to the boundaries of the Healdsburg Unified School District. They extended by two weeks the deadline for applications to serve on the committee.

Chambers noted that Winston "will have an impact whether or not he's on the committee."

Winston vowed in an interview that if there is a recommendation for a number of new dwelling units that threatens Healdsburg's "small town character and quality of life, I will run a campaign against it."

Warren Watkins, a retired math teacher who filed a lawsuit challenging the environmental study on Saggio Hills, urged the council to allow people outside city limits to serve on the committee, and in particular Winston.

"Winston clearly knows as much as anyone about the issue," he said.

"People who live in Dry Creek and Alexander Valley always say. &‘I live in Healdsburg.' They consider themselves Healdsburg people," Watkins said.

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