Sonoma County outlines new blueprint to boost housing supply
Facing a looming state deadline it is likely to miss, Sonoma County is advancing a new housing plan that would ground new projects near the region’s urban centers but could also spur development along parts of the lower Russian River and Alexander Valley.
The plan, called a housing element, identifies nine areas across unincorporated Sonoma County that could accommodate more housing within the next decade. The areas include Sonoma Valley, the outskirts of Santa Rosa and Cloverdale, and the lower Russian River stretching from Guerneville to Forestville.
The housing blueprints are required by state law of cities and counties every eight years and they have become a key pressure point for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration as it seeks to hold local jurisdictions more accountable for housing production.
Under that state law, local jurisdictions are assigned a certain number of housing units ranging from low income to above-moderate income, to be built by a deadline.
This cycle, the Association of Bay Area Governments allotted 3,824 housing units for Sonoma County to approve outside of cities, more than double the 515 units in the area during the last cycle.
“The increase is really significant,” said Bradley Dunn, a policy manager with Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning agency. “We met our regional housing need allocation during the last cycle and didn’t expect to get a sixfold increase.”
Of the 3,824 mandated units, 1,024 must be very low income, 584 must be low income, 627 must be moderate income and 1,589 must be above moderate income, according to the county’s housing element draft.
Through projects already in the works — either permitted or in construction — the county has already met about 52% of its allocation.
To meet the remaining 48%, the county has identified 52 sites throughout the county, the majority located around Santa Rosa and near the Russian River.
Many of those sites will require rezoning, an often contentious and sometimes litigious process that could evoke some of the pitched battles over growth and sprawl that largely played out in Sonoma County decades ago.
Since then, the county’s general plan and its voter-backed commitments to preserve greenbelts between cities have funneled most growth inside city boundaries.
For its new housing blueprint, the county looked for suitable sites outside those borders but near urban centers with key existing infrastructure — sewer lines, transit services and proximity to amenities such as grocery stores, Dunn said.
“We also believe that city centered growth is the answer to a lot of our problems because of the climate crisis,” Dunn said. “If you have city centered growth people live closer to jobs, closer to services like grocery stores, drive less. People in cities also have less land, less water needs.”
In a parallel process, the county has opened public comment on an environmental impact report tied to the housing element and proposed rezoning. The environmental report does not need state approval but does need signoff from the Board of Supervisors, Dunn said.
No reprieve for county
The Association of Bay Area Governments originally allotted 3,881 units to Sonoma County but reduced the amount by 57 units when the county appealed and argued the allotment did not reflect recent annexation of land into Cloverdale.
The county filed two appeals with the association in July 2021.
In its other appeal, the county requested a larger reduction, to 1,971 units, and cited limited sewer infrastructure as the biggest obstacle to development in the county’s unincorporated areas.
“The allocation of 3,881 units will result in the zoning of rural land incapable of treating sewage for this density in violation of County and State regulations,” Wick wrote.
The appeal failed.
The county went ahead with planning for the bigger number of new homes. And it was not alone as other local cities also saw their mandates rise. Collectively, Sonoma County and its nine cities must approve over 14,500 new homes, a 72% jump from the current eight-year state housing cycle.
On Dec. 30, 2022 the county submitted its housing element draft to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for review.
The department has 90 days to review the draft and send it back for revisions. All nine counties in the Bay Area must adopt their housing elements by Jan. 31.
Sonoma County’s draft submission on Dec. 30 means the state’s 90-day review period will extend past the Jan. 31 adoption deadline.
Many counties in the Bay Area have fallen behind the Jan. 31 mark, Dunn said.
Failure to meet the state deadline could expose local jurisdictions to lawsuits by groups seeking to speed the process or win new concessions.
A potential case has already emerged here.
In December, a coalition of housing advocacy organizations sent Sonoma County a letter threatening a lawsuit as soon as Feb. 1, unless the county signed an acknowledgment stating it will be out of compliance with the state deadline. The organizations are YIMBY Law, Californians for Homeownership and California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund.
“From the perspective of the housing organizations that sent this letter, we’re trying to leverage everything the state is providing, to encourage housing to get built,” said Keith Diggs, an attorney working on behalf of YIMBY Law.
The coalition has sent letters to 32 jurisdictions including Sonoma County, Diggs said. None of those governments have replied to the letter, he added.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors discussed the letter with its attorneys on Tuesday, but as of Thursday the acknowledgment had not been signed, Christa Shaw, a deputy county counsel, confirmed in an email.
“The County is moving forward with the Housing Element Update as quickly as possible,” said Shaw.
Shaw added the county has not received any other legal threats regarding its housing element.
If it moves forward with a lawsuit, YIMBY Law will be looking for the courts to uphold a builders remedy law allowing projects to move forward under certain conditions despite the lack of an updated housing element, Diggs said.
“I would encourage Sonoma County to focus on quality rather than speed,” Diggs said. “That said, we’re going to be seeking to get the builders remedy enforced, but I don’t think that should be viewed as a bad way.”
Asked if he was working with any developers, Diggs said “None that I consent to divulge.”
As the county waits for state to complete its review, Dunn said the team behind the blueprint is “really proud of the draft” and is looking forward to state’s feedback.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.
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The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
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