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Sebastopol is hiring Sonoma State University students to do the groundwork for updating the city's 18-year-old general plan.

The students, all seniors at SSU with career goals of being municipal planners, will get experience in drafting a planning policy that meets California law and guides decisions for the next two decades.

And Sebastopol will get information it needs and possibly new ideas to update its plan, which the city cannot afford to do, said Kenyon Webster, Sebastopol's planning director.

"We are hoping the students also have insights and bring a new perspective to the community planning discussion, and some energy and enthusiasm," Webster said. "And because it will be for the academic year, it will not go on forever, as some of our planning processes will do."

The City Council last week approved a $15,000 contract with Sonoma State for the work to be done in the university's environmental and planning department.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for students," said Wayne Goldberg, a SSU lecturer and former Santa Rosa planning director. "It may be the first time in their academic careers that they are engaged in something that is meaningful for a public agency."

The first work begins this summer with three students mapping the city and its land use patterns, followed by a demographic report compiled by students in the fall and a draft proposal for general policy changes next spring.

Students will be monitored by Goldberg and Professor Steve Orlick and meet with Sebastopol planners, politicians and residents.

"They will reflect the interest of their client, the city of Sebastopol," Goldberg said. "They can have a discussion of subjects that might be outside the box, but also a discussion of subjects that meet the city's needs."

The SSU class has done similar studies for Cotati, Cloverdale, Sonoma, Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa and for the area surrounding the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

In 1998, a majority of the students' work was incorporated into the Cotati General Plan, said Vicki Parker, Cotati director of community development.

It included concepts such as low-impact development, mixing business and residential uses and policies for alternative energy that were ahead of their time, Parker said.

"There were a lot of forward-thinking ideas, so it is not a dry regulatory document that you might get from consultants," Parker said. "It has worked great, it is really representative of the community sentiment."

Webster said Sebastopol has $50,000 in its budget for a general plan update, far short of the $500,000 to $750,000 a general plan update costs.

Sebastopol has grown little since 1994, when the general plan was created. The population now is about 7,500 compared to 7,200 in 1994, but residents are older and there are fewer families with children.

There are also concepts that were not addressed in 1994, such as the city living within its resources, reducing greenhouse gases and specifying architectural styles for development.

"Based on discussions and agenda items in the past, it appears Sebastopol has recognized some of these issues early on and is working on them, and there is community interest in policies that address those issues," Goldberg said. "The other thing that make it beneficial for students is Sebastopol is of a size that 18 students can get a handle on."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@

pressdemocrat.com.