Sonoma County welcomes granny units and thousands of other new homes after devastating fires

Sonoma County was in a housing hole before the fires, and the long-term shortfall may be as many as 30,000 units.|

Sonoma County supervisors signed off Tuesday on a wide-ranging suite of policy changes intended to encourage construction of more new homes, loosening restrictions on granny units and lowering other development hurdles seven months after nearly ?5,300 residences were lost here in last year’s devastating wildfires.

Under the revised rules, homeowners in unincorporated areas could build a larger granny unit or fit one on a smaller property than the county allowed before, depending on the size of the site as well as its water and sanitation systems. County permitting officials will be able to sanction second units on even smaller lots through a separate process.

And homeowners looking to build more compact granny units will have to pay less in fees, part of an effort from the Board of Supervisors to promote what the county sees as one of its best options to expand housing in rural areas.

The new policy alone isn’t likely to trigger a large influx of housing in unincorporated neighborhoods, county leaders admitted. But it was the first in a series of housing initiatives expected to be brought forward in the coming months by county planning staff.

“How do we put the pedal to the metal and not just allow this, but encourage it?” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, referring to the overall housing package. “It seems like passing this sort of code and saying you can do it is one thing, but actually getting those projects built out is another.”

Sonoma County needed seven years, starting in to 2011, to build almost the number of homes wiped off the map by the fires in a single day. Since then, experts and local officials have estimated that the gap between what exists now - about 203,000 homes - and what’s needed to keep the economy growing and house a wide range of workers and families could be as high as 30,000 units.

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors floated that total as a tentative five-year building target, ordering up a host of ways to overhaul its regulation of home development.

On Tuesday, as another part of that move, supervisors expanded the amount of residential space allowed in mixed-use developments, eased the process for establishing single-room occupancy facilities and delayed the collection of affordable housing fees to take financial pressure off developers.

Supervisors raised the maximum size of a granny unit allowed by the county to 1,200 square feet - up from 1,000 square feet - for properties of at least 2 acres that are connected to well and septic systems. The same size cap applies to properties of at least 5,000 square feet that are served by public sewers.

Rural, septic-connected properties as small as 1 acre can still get a permit for a one-bedroom granny unit, depending on their water setup and as long as the additional unit is no larger than 640 square feet.

After Supervisor Shirlee Zane pressed to loosen the property size requirements even more, Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, agreed to consider granny units on properties smaller than 1 acre on a case-by-case basis through a separate permitting process.

“Let’s allow for the maximum amount of flexibility,” Zane said. “I want people to be able to live here again and rebuild, and I just think that we need to be able to find incentives.”

Hopkins recused herself from the discussion about granny units because the Forestville property where she lives would be newly eligible to add one under the changes passed by the board.

The housing rule changes were first advanced by the Sonoma County Planning Commission. Commissioner John Lowry, a former affordable housing developer, told supervisors he had grappled with similar questions about lot sizes. Public water and sewer connections made smaller sites suitable for second units, he said, but well and septic systems make it more difficult in rural areas.

“These other issues, these other constraints, are very real,” Lowry said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Frankly, I was a little uncomfortable with how small these lots could be to put a second unit with well and septic.”

More than 1,000 unincorporated properties may now be able to build a second unit because supervisors lowered the minimum required lot size, according to county staff estimates. But Supervisor Susan Gorin wasn’t convinced the change would make a huge dent in the housing crisis.

“I’m a little pessimistic about this,” Gorin said. “It’s not going to be a significant way to increase the number of housing units that we need. But it may be a small way to get into that.”

Jennifer Barrett, the county’s deputy planning director, said one of the most significant changes passed Tuesday could be the increase in residential floor space allowed in projects that also have a commercial component. The county will now allow up to 80 percent of the space to be residential - up from half - making room for a potential of 200 new units in pending projects, according to Barrett.

Also, the county will now allow developers to create small single-room occupancy facilities without having to get a land-use permit in commercial areas and mid- to high-density residential areas. The county won’t have a cap on the number of units allowed in larger single-room occupancy projects, which Barrett said could pave the way for more projects like the Palms Inn, a former Santa Rosa Avenue motel converted into long-term housing for homeless people, Barrett said.

Hoping to improve the financing picture for housing projects, the board further agreed to push collection of affordable housing fees nearer to the occupation date, a move expected to reduce out-of-pocket expenses for developers.

Supervisors also took more specific steps to advance two closely watched projects where new housing is envisioned.

First, the board on Tuesday authorized its staff members to gauge the private sector’s interest in redeveloping the sprawling north Santa Rosa county government center, beginning a yearslong initiative that could make room for thousands of new housing units. County officials expect to release a questionnaire for developers this summer and potentially issue a request for more extensive development proposals no sooner than this winter.

Additionally, supervisors agreed, after much debate, to advance a 2-year-old project to house homeless veterans in tiny homes on county land. The site developer, Community Housing Sonoma County, will now be able to use the entirety of a roughly $1.8 million loan the county previously authorized to put 14 tiny veterans’ homes at a county-owned site on Russell Avenue for the next few years.

Paula Cook, the executive director of the community housing group, said her organization is ready to submit applications for site grading and building permits as soon as it receives the funds.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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