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Santa Rosa narrows permit streamlining to areas near transit

The Santa Rosa City Council Tuesday narrowed the scope of its latest effort to streamline its permitting process in areas where it has prioritized housing.

The move was a reversal of a council vote earlier this month to cut the red tape for housing projects throughout the city, and was cast as a sign of the city’s renewed commitment to downtown development.

The council faced pressure to limit the streamlining effort to only those areas of the city known as “priority development areas,” which include Roseland and areas near transit, including downtown.

Groups such as the Greenbelt Alliance had argued that the city should do everything it can to incentivize housing closer to the infrastructure best able to handle it, such as Highway 101 and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit line.

Mayor Chris Coursey, who voted for the more expansive version earlier this month, praised narrowing it Tuesday.

He said the change would help preserve a rare alliance between environmental and business concerns who agree on the importance of focusing development near downtown.

“That agreement that we have now on several issues related to downtown … is something that we haven’t seen in many years around Santa Rosa, and I’m just happy that we can stay on that path,” Coursey said.

The move was unusual because the council approved the broader measure May 1 by a 5-2 vote, with council members Tom Schwedhelm and Jack Tibbetts arguing strongly against limiting it to priority development areas.

In the intervening weeks, however, David Guhin, director of planning and economic development, said he gave the issue - including community feedback - more thought and concluded that shrinking the scope to priority development areas made sense after all.

“The more I thought about it, it felt like we were trying to do too much in one ordinance,” he said.

The wide variety of housing that would be affected by the change - included child care facilities, senior housing and care facilities, mobile home parks, multifamily apartments, mixed-use projects, single-room occupancy, some single-family homes and emergency shelters - was causing confusion on the issue, he said.

The move means large housing projects such as the effort to build hundreds of units on Sonoma County’s former hospital property off Chanate Road would not qualify for speedier permitting.

Council members Julie Combs and Chris Rogers, who voted against the original version, gave qualified praise for the changes.

Combs said she’ll be watching to make sure the public remains engaged in the speedier development review process, and Rogers said he hopes the changes don’t lead to an overconcentration of uses in certain areas.

“I think we’re willing to try something new because what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” Rogers said.

If the streamlining effort, which is a three-year pilot project, works well in the priority areas, is could be extended to the entire city later, Guhin said.

The council voted 7-0 in favor of the change.

A separate piece of the so-called Resiliency City Measures extended some of the same relaxation of rules for homes in the burn zones, such as allowing people to live in trailers on their properties while they rebuild, to the entire city.

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

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