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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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

That issue barely came up, however. Fire safety was clearly driving Tuesday’s debate. Another was the lack of details about the residential project envisioned on the site. The developer asked for the property to be rezoned first, with the project approval to come later.

That made it difficult for some council members to trust, for example, the developer’s assurance that there would be some affordable housing in the project. Without those details, council members were skeptical.

“There could be 237 million-dollar homes on that property,” Coursey said.

Most council members didn’t want to kill the prospect of housing on the site entirely. Coursey said he would be open to rezoning the property if the project details were submitted at the same time.

Ultimately, Rogers and Tibbets negotiated a way for the issue to come back at the first meeting in February, when Sawyer, a likely vote in favor, would be able to participate in the decision. Rogers said he hoped that by then the council could get some more information to help it decide how to treat new housing requests in burn areas so applicants didn’t run into the same “buzzsaw.”

City Manager Sean McGlynn said that was highly unlikely to happen.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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