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A Santa Rosa neighborhood group said the loss of several thousand homes in last month’s wildfires does not alter its objections to a major county real estate deal intended to produce hundreds of new rental units in the hills off Chanate Road.

The group, called Friends of Chanate, sued in August hoping to halt the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ sale of the 82-acre property, which includes the old county hospital complex. Residents represented in the suit — more than 200 of them, the group said at the time — argued the county failed to fully study the possible environmental impacts, skirted state public-meeting requirements and didn’t get the best price for taxpayers, among other claims.

Those arguments still stand in the firestorms’ aftermath, said attorney Noreen Evans, who is representing Friends of Chanate.

“Our fundamental objections to the proposal haven’t changed,” Evans said in an interview Friday. “The property was sold for far less than its fair market value, and it doesn’t appear to be the right kind of development.”

Evans said the lawsuit isn’t intended to upend the possibility of all new housing construction at the Chanate Road property, where developer Bill Gallaher wants to build as many as 800 rental units, 20 percent of which would be affordable to residents with very low incomes, plus veterans’ housing. Gallaher’s team has agreed to pay as much as $11.5 million for the site.

“We’d like more workforce housing and a more fair price for the taxpayers of Sonoma County,” said Evans, a former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for county supervisor last year. “There’s no opposition to housing in general — everybody knows we need more housing. I don’t think that’s an issue at all.”

But Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane said the housing units that could come from the deal are desperately needed, especially after the October wildfires destroyed more than 5,000 residential structures in the area. The county followed the rules when it sold the land to Gallaher, Zane said, accusing opponents of the deal of engaging in a cold-hearted attempt to keep renters out of their upscale neighborhood.

“We had a housing crisis before the fires. Now it’s a catastrophe,” she said. “If people want to stop an affordable housing proposal through litigation because they are elitist segregationists — they don’t want those renters in their neighborhood … they have to be accountable to their own conscience.”

Zane, who represents the area that includes the former hospital site, accused neighbors opposed to the deal of embracing arguments “right out of a segregation handbook” in an attempt to keep renters out. Her opinion is based on letters and emails her office received while supervisors were considering the sale earlier this year, she said.

The board in July unanimously approved the sale of the county-owned property to Gallaher, who wants to build a complex of rental units there, along with additional housing for homeless veterans, a dog park, grocery store, amphitheater and other amenities. Gallaher has envisioned keeping much of the land as open space.

Gallaher’s team agreed to pay at least $6 million for the site, intending to build at least 400 units. The price would rise by an additional $13,800 for each additional unit approved by Santa Rosa — since the site is within city limits — resulting in the maximum anticipated sales price of $11.5 million.

County officials contend the deal could be worth as much as $71.9 million for the county when considering other factors such as the cost of developing the affordable housing units and the demolition and maintenance costs the county will avoid by selling the property.

Komron Shahhosseini, Gallaher’s project manager for the Chanate Road proposal, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

In a Nov. 1 Facebook post, Friends of Chanate said “all of our lives changed” when the blazes broke out Oct. 8, expressing sympathy for the families and friends of the people who died and for those who lost homes or businesses in the most destructive wildfires in California history. The group said its members would be “deeply involved” in helping the community recover and rebuild.

But, in redoubling its commitment to the lawsuit, the group said its legal fight against the Chanate Road sale was “more important than ever before.”

“In the aftermath of the fire, it is critical that our county government be listening to the people ­— to all of us — about how to best move forward,” the group’s post said. “Also, there is no question that the county needs every dollar to help with rebuilding. Our lawsuit reinforces how essential it is to provide the required public process in everything the County does, and if we are successful, the county is likely to have more money available to spend on critical fire recovery.”

The group said it has allowed the county more time to get its papers in order due to the fires. County officials now have until Dec. 10 to provide all documents related to the actions they took in approving the property sale, according to the Facebook post.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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