Sonoma County, Windsor appeal state-mandated targets for future housing
Sonoma County and Windsor are asking for a reduction in their state-mandated targets for future home construction, appeals that experts and some local officials say are unlikely to succeed in the face of the North Bay’s intensifying affordable housing shortage.
As it stands now, the county’s unincorporated areas and the region’s fourth-largest city must set in motion plans to together approve building nearly 5,000 housing units for a range of income levels by 2031.
Local officials agree that Sonoma County, which is continuing to rebuild the thousands of homes lost in the 2017 firestorm, is in dire need of additional housing.
That concern has only become more urgent during the pandemic, as wealthier residents from other parts of the Bay Area have flooded into the county, sending single-family home prices to record highs and rents climbing.
The issue at hand, officials say, is how to best divvy up the 14,562 new home units now allocated for the county and its nine cities under the Bay Area’s upcoming new housing plan, which state law requires to be updated every eight years.
“It’s not saying no to the number of homes, it’s just saying no to where they should be built,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “The housing should be in the cities, and I think this county knows that better than any other.”
Starting in 2023, the state’s top housing agency is set to more than double the entire Bay Area’s housing target to over 440,000 new homes. Urban centers including San Francisco, San Jose and the East Bay will shoulder the bulk of that development. Still, the increase has trickled down to Sonoma County.
From 2023 to 2031, the unincorporated county’s home building goal is set to jump to 3,881 units. About 147,000 people, or about 30% of the county’s population, live in unincorporated communities. Windsor’s housing target, meanwhile, could double to 993 units.
Rabbitt and other local officials say the increases are at odds with a countywide effort to focus growth in denser cities such as Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. They argue those areas already are zoned for more affordable multifamily homes and large apartment buildings.
Proponents of such “city-centered” development also contend the more urban areas are closer to transit and home to the county’s main job hubs, meaning new development there wouldn’t have as great an effect on traffic or vehicle emissions.
In Sonoma County’s appeal to the Association of Bay Area Governments — the agency tasked with determining how the state-imposed housing goals are distributed across local jurisdictions — officials are asking for the unincorporated county’s housing target to be cut in half to 1,910 units.
Officials claim in the appeal that county-maintained sewer and water infrastructure can’t accommodate the total number of units required by the association. It also points to urban growth boundaries enacted by voters, which officials say limit potential development sites, and highlights concerns about dwindling water supplies due to climate change.
The county has also filed a smaller separate appeal, asking for a reduction of 60 housing units because the city of Cloverdale recently annexed county land for a new residential development.
Rabbitt, who serves as immediate past president of the Bay Area governments group, voted against the methodology used to allocate housing units because, he said, the formula didn’t fully take into account the needs of local communities. He will recuse himself when the agency considers Sonoma County’s appeal.
Ultimately, Rabbitt hopes the county can come to an agreement with cities, including Santa Rosa, to accept a portion of its housing allotment. Mayor Chris Rogers said he would support such a proposal.
“The county doesn’t need to continue to sprawl into fire-prone areas. It should work with cities to build dense housing in our urban core,” Rogers said.
Michael Lane, a senior policy director with the Bay Area civic planning think tank SPUR, said the development targets for unincorporated Sonoma County take into account the “true need” of the region’s low-wage agricultural and tourism industry workers living outside of urban centers.
Lane said that while county officials have made strides to rezone areas for denser and cheaper housing, they have a responsibility to do even more.
“I don’t think this appeal should be or will be ultimately successful, but I will agree that they have been a good group of (pro-housing) elected officials,” he said. “I just don’t think the appeal deserves to be upheld.”
Windsor Mayor Sam Salmon isn’t optimistic his town’s appeal will be successful. Still, he said it was important to push back against what he sees as a top-down approach to housing taken by the state. Windsor is asking for a 65% reduction in its housing goals to 342 units.
“I’ve never taken to heart this ‘build, baby, build’ concept,” Salmon said. “I think there’s an environmental price that is too much for that. We have to build in the appropriate places, and we have to build workforce housing.”
If Windsor’s current targets remain in place, he said, the town may fail to hit its numbers for reasons outside of its control, such as a lack of private financing. That’s now holding up two planned local apartment complexes near the SMART train tracks.
Salmon worries Windsor might then miss out on crucial state affordable housing grants, which are tied to meeting the home development benchmarks. Municipalities that don’t make enough progress permitting homes can also face fines and lose land-use authority over proposed residential projects.
Dave Vautin, assistant director of the Bay Area governments group, said the agency’s staff will closely consider all 28 appeals it has received from local Bay Area officials. A final determination is set to come by November.
Vautin said that when Southern California governments undertook a similar appeals process earlier this year, only two of the roughly 50 appeals were partially accepted.
“The (ABAG appeals) committee is operating under the same rules of the road as all other parts of the state,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at email@example.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.
Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat
I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.