A plan to build as many as 237 new homes in an area of Santa Rosa decimated by the October wildfires was unexpectedly upended Tuesday after City Council members said they worried about putting future residents in harm’s way.
In a rare 3-3 deadlock, the council refused to change the zoning on a 40-acre Fountaingrove commercial property that has remained undeveloped for decades.
While half of the council members present praised the idea as a needed step toward expanding the city’s housing stock, the other half said they couldn’t sign off on the change without greater assurances that the people living in those homes would be safe.
“This particular area just went through the worst wildfire in California history ten weeks ago,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “It’s a good bet that if 237 homes had been on that property 10 weeks ago that there would be 237 piles of ash there right now.”
The October wildfires killed 24 people in Sonoma County and destroyed 5,130 homes, about 2,800 of which were in Santa Rosa. The city estimates that 5 percent of its housing stock was lost.
Councilwoman Julie Combs said the city clearly needed housing, but she worried that the city wasn’t learning the lessons from the fires. She has previously questioned the wisdom of allowing people to rebuild in the burn areas before new building codes informed by the fire can go into effect.
“I am unwilling to increase the number of people who are sleeping in a fire hazard area,” Combs said. “I don’t consider it viable.”
Coursey, Combs and Vice Mayor Chris Rogers voted against the rezoning. Ernesto Olivares, Tom Schwedhelm and Jack Tibbetts voted in favor. John Sawyer was absent.
Tibbetts noted that the entire city is in an earthquake danger zone, but that doesn’t mean building should come to a halt. “Disasters are a fact of life,” he said.
The rezoning was proposed by San Francisco-based developer City Ventures for the Round Barn Boulevard property owned by medical device maker Medtronic. The developer sought to have the zoning changed from business park to medium-low density residential. That would allow it to build up to 237 homes on 18.3 acres of the site, the balance being left as open space. The project would be called Round Barn Village.
A portion of the property is an unused parking lot, while another section is the site of the historic Fountain Grove Winery, the ruins of which were torn down two years ago.
A number of nearby properties were directly affected by the October fires, which destroyed the landmark Fountaingrove Round Barn, the Fountaingrove Inn, and Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, along with more than 1,500 Fountaingrove homes.
One of the issues that had been raised about the project was whether the city should be taking land out of business park zoning when there is such a demand for it, particularly by the fast-growing cannabis industry.
But economic analysis performed in support of the rezoning found that it would take 30 years at the current growth rate for the city to use up all 4.1 million square feet of vacant or potential industrial and office space.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here