Sonoma County signals intent to protect Santa Rosa meadow up for sale in development deal

Bowing to intense political pressure from a group of Santa Rosa neighborhood activists, the chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has agreed to guarantee that a treasured undeveloped meadow near their homes won’t be paved over after the county sells the sprawling site of its old hospital complex to a housing developer.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said in an interview this week that she has not yet determined the best way to officially ensure the meadow and some surrounding land remain as open space. The options under consideration include removing the roughly 10-acre parcel from the sale entirely or striking a deal with the developer, Bill Gallaher, to maintain the land as a preserve.

The about-face represents a significant concession from Zane, who previously insisted that neighbors’ concerns about selling the de facto open space would have to be addressed by the city when Gallaher’s project passed through its planning process.

Neighbors, in response, mounted an aggressive campaign, consulting an attorney, filing extensive requests for years’ worth of public records on the parcel in question and placing signs - knowingly or not - in Zane’s McDonald Avenue neighborhood and along her route to work.

“It was just time to say, you know, if we have to lose some money on this in terms of renegotiating the proposal, then that’s what we should do,” Zane said. She said the decision came Tuesday after county officials and supervisors met behind closed doors to discuss the sale, though that wasn’t the only factor.

Zane, whose district includes the site of the meadow and the former hospital, faulted the county for not ironing out a big wrinkle with the proposed sale sooner.

“The staff need to be held accountable. They didn’t do their homework,” she said. “The developer shouldn’t have to pay for that, and neither should the neighbors. It’s just that simple.”

Mark Epstein, a homeowner near the northeast Santa Rosa meadow who has been at the forefront of efforts to protect it, said he was glad to see the board move toward resolution of the controversy, which he saw as needlessly pitting the county’s longstanding tradition of preserving open spaces against a pressing need to increase the supply of available housing units.

“I’ve been saying from the beginning of this: Nobody runs to be a supervisor to pave over open space preserves,” Epstein said. “I think it just took a while for them to absorb the practical implications of trying to fix the mistake ... This is the smart thing for them to do in the long run.”

Altering the highly anticipated deal in such a significant way at this point - three months after exclusive negotiations began with Gallaher - will require revisiting the sale price, Zane said. Gallaher, the Santa Rosa-based founder of Oakmont Senior Living, had previously agreed to pay as much as $12.5 million for 82 acres of the county’s owns Chanate Road campus. The site includes the former Sutter Medical Center, the meadow on the south side of Paulin Creek and other county land.

Zane said this week that changing the deal won’t imperil the project. It calls for up to 800 housing units - 20 percent of them affordable to low-income residents - as well as a grocery store, amphitheater, dog park, recreation center, dozens of acres of open space and other amenities.

Gallaher’s team appears to be on board with the revision.

“At this point, all we’re trying to do is get in a position where we can actually purchase (the site) and move forward with the process with the city so that we can build housing,” said Komron Shahhosseini, Gallaher’s project manager. “We’re going to do whatever we can, whatever we need to do, in order to make that possible.”

As originally envisioned, the proposed real estate deal would be the county’s largest land sale in recent history and, at maximum buildout comprise one of Santa Rosa’s largest housing projects in a generation. The county worked toward a sale for about two years, and supervisors in February agreed to move forward with plans to sell the property to Gallaher.

But the inclusion of the meadow in the proposed deal shocked neighbors who have long understood it to be part of an official open space preserve. Their concerns were heightened by a conceptual map indicating Gallaher’s team might build on the meadow, even though his project manager said it was not a final blueprint of where construction would actually occur.

The meadow for 15 years has been marked by a prominent sign that declares it part of the Paulin Creek Open Space Preserve supposedly managed by a partnership of the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the county Water Agency, the county itself and the city.

Discussions about preserving the land date back to at least 2002, when the Open Space District bought a 9-acre property next to the meadow. Combined with the meadow and other land owned by the Water Agency, the three properties were supposed to form the 46-acre preserve, according to reports at the time in The Press Democrat.

Despite the longstanding presence of the sign, however, no formal action was ever taken to restrict development on the meadow, according to county officials.

“In 2002, there was an intention to have that whole area be protected. And the district did put up a sign,” said Bill Keene, the general manager of the Open Space District. “It was all well intentioned. Obviously, that’s led to concern from the neighbors ... I’m certainly willing to roll up my sleeves and work hard to help negotiate a positive solution with the developer that results in a positive outcome for the community.”

Neighbors unearthed additional evidence to support their claims about the county’s intentions to protect the land.

A 2004 draft management plan for the area, created for the Open Space District, discusses the preserve as consisting of three distinct pieces of land, including the meadow off Beverly Way. According to the plan, Santa Rosa agreed to bring the entire preserve into its park system but leave it “wild and separate ... not as a typical park” with “very limited maintenance and management.” But the city did not ever act on that intention and the district’s management plan wasn’t officially adopted.

The neighbors also pointed to a 2013 map from the Open Space District that suggested the meadow parcel was part of the Paulin Creek preserve and a 2016 county presentation that, when describing the open space on Chanate Road, included a picture of the preserve sign.

Zane said supervisors were “blindsided” to learn of the meadow’s history.

“We trusted the county staff to do the research on these parcels. Apparently that didn’t happen,” she said. “Now we have to go forward and make sure that Mr. Gallaher gets a fair price with all of this, that we get those units developed and that the neighbors will know from the moment that we sell this that (the meadow parcel) will be preserved.”

Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director, declined to respond to Zane’s specific statements about blunders by staff, but she stressed the complex nature of large property sales. Her department oversees county-owned property, including the Chanate Road site.

“Our organization - myself personally and the county - we believe in continuous improvement. That’s something that we strive for,” said Judy, who started in her position in early 2016.

Keene struck a similar tone. “We always look to improve communication, and if the board felt that there was a lack of information, then we’ll certainly address that,” he said.

Judy said she could not comment on the details of ongoing negotiations or closed-session discussions, but she emphasized that county officials were “working very hard” to reach a solution with the developer that would address both the board’s will and concerns from neighbors.

Zane appears to have support from most of her fellow board members in seeking a solution.

Supervisors Susan Gorin and Lynda Hopkins both said they wanted to make sure the meadow parcel wasn’t developed, and Supervisor James Gore said Zane had his “full support” to resolve the matter. Supervisor David Rabbitt said he’d have to look at the final proposal, but he believed it was the duty of Santa Rosa - with some assistance from the Open Space District - to handle the preserve, because it falls within city limits.

The final deal will require approval from at least four of the five supervisors in order to pass.

“We’re not a bunch of money-grubbing politicians who are trying to get an extra million bucks to put housing on a preserve,” Gore said. “It’s just we’re stuck in this place where we’re trying to figure out legally, with an agreement, what the right way is forward.”

By taking care of the Paulin Creek preserve before wrapping up the Chanate deal - which could happen as soon as next month - supervisors also will avoid the messy politics of passing an unresolved controversy off to Santa Rosa officials.

“All I can say is, I am glad to hear that,” Mayor Chris Coursey said on hearing of Zane’s pivot. “I think it’s best for everyone.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337.

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