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Appeals of state-mandated housing targets by Sonoma County, Windsor denied

The denials mean officials governing the county’s unincorporated areas and its fourth-largest city will likely need to set in motion plans to together approve thousands more housing units.|

A regional planning agency Friday issued preliminary denials of appeals by Sonoma County and Windsor seeking a reduction in their upcoming state-mandated housing goals, which are set to dramatically increase starting in 2023.

Though not final, the denials mean officials governing the county’s unincorporated areas and its fourth-largest city will likely need to set in motion plans to approve the construction of thousands more housing units for all income levels between 2023 to 2031.

In a virtual public hearing Friday, representatives from the county and Windsor presented their appeals before the Association of Bay Area Governments — the agency tasked with determining how state housing targets are distributed across the nine-county region. While acknowledging Sonoma County’s severe housing shortage as the area continues to rebuild after a string of destructive fire seasons, officials asked that their goals each be cut by at least half and redistributed to other jurisdictions in the county.

“We simply do not agree with the location,” said Tennis Wick, Sonoma County’s top land use official.

The unincorporated county’s home building goal — known as its Regional Housing Needs Assessment — is set to jump to 3,881 total units, half of which must be for residents with low incomes. That’s up from just 515 homes for the current eight-year cycle. There are about 54,000 households in unincorporated communities, the second most in the county, according to state officials.

Windsor, with about 9,200 households, is set to see its housing target double to 993 units. Of that number, 607 must be for low-income households.

In his appeal, Wick pointed to inadequate sewer and water infrastructure, concerns about drought and natural disasters, and voter-enacted urban growth boundaries as reasons the unincorporated county will struggle to accommodate substantially more homes.

Windsor Mayor Sam Salmon said the town was caught of guard by an “equity adjustment” that increased its housing goal during the allocation process, adding his jurisdiction is already facing challenges getting projects finished.

“It depends on our economy and the ability of developers to build the required units,” Salmon said.

Association staff responded they carefully examined many of the issues raised by Wick and Salmon when coming up with the housing allotments.

Other concerns, including wildfire and flood risk, were not considered under the current allocation framework, and therefore not grounds for an appeal, staff said. However, they stressed their determinations give officials the freedom to permit new homes wherever they see fit within their municipalities.

Some Bay Area city and county officials on the association’s executive board expressed frustration over the lack of local control provided by the allocation methodology, which the agency approved through a committee process last year. But in the end, board members felt they had no choice but to unanimously deny both appeals.

In total, the agency reviewed 28 appeals from across the region. Only Contra Costa County’s was approved.

“It is frustrating to hear all of these appeals ... but the majority are going to fail, obviously,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who recused himself from the vote on his county’s appeal but voted to deny Windsor’s.

Association board members plan to take a final vote to approve the appeals on Nov. 12 before finalizing all allocations in December.

In their appeals, Wick and Salmon argued growth should be focused in more urban parts of the county such as downtown Santa Rosa. Those areas are already zoned for denser, “naturally affordable” apartments and multifamily homes and are closer to public transit and job centers. Proponents of such “city-centered” growth say building there would limit the effect on municipal infrastructure, traffic and climate-harming vehicle emissions.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers has indicated the city could voluntarily take on a portion of the county’s housing goal, a move allowed under state law. Santa Rosa’s upcoming target is set to shrink slightly to 4,685 units.

The countywide target for all municipalities comes to over 14,500 units, up from about 8,400 units in the current cycle.

That increase means local officials will likely need to update planning codes to allow for more development. If cities and counties don’t adequately outline how they will meet the new goals in their general plans, they could face fines, miss out on state affordable housing grants and even run the risk of losing their permitting authority.

And if municipalities fail to follow through on those plans by not issuing enough building permits, they could be effectively forced to accept certain proposed developments through a fast-track approval process.

For the current building cycle, few Sonoma County jurisdictions appear on their way to meeting their housing goals for all income levels. Officials, developers and housing advocates have attributed the slow progress to a range of reasons including restrictive local zoning ordinances, public opposition to new development and difficulty securing financing for construction.

In a public comment submitted to the regional planning association by email, Fred Allebach, a member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group, called on the board to compel local officials to come up with solutions to build more homes for working class residents.

“Whatever you do, keep the allocation at the same number and make the municipalities here deal with it,” Allebach wrote.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian“ at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

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