Tension over new development rises amid water scarcity in Healdsburg
The way Brigette Mansell sees it, the drastic water conservation measures already required of those who live in Healdsburg make it obvious the city needs to stop and think about how much more it can grow.
Development of luxury housing and hotels that cater to tony visitors and part-time residents — who may not be as invested in the community’s well-being — defies logic, she says.
Mansell, a former Healdsburg councilwoman and mayor, and other like-minded residents support continued efforts to provide affordable housing in the town.
But with more than 500 planned and prospective units in the pipeline — more than half of which would be sold at market rate — they want the city to suspend water hookups until officials have a more realistic grasp on balancing water supply and demand.
“Don’t be building something you cannot show you have water for,” Mansell said. “We don’t feel confident in our water security.”
Mansell said large projects currently in the works, like the Mill District and North Village — both combined housing and hotel developments — were authorized in part because of an erroneously rosy supply outlook contained in the city’s 2015 Urban Water Management Plan, which is required to be updated every five years by state law.
Mansell, who sat on the dais when a unanimous city council approved it, said the document prepared by a well-paid consultant failed to account for the kind of severe drought currently plaguing the region, as well as the unprecedented regulatory restrictions that have strained local supplies more than ever before.
Last month, she launched a petition drive calling for an emergency moratorium on water hookups until a new update to the plan is approved. She’s gathered more than 500 signatures so far.
“We want to stop adding to our water system, stop hookups — any new hookups that are nonessential — stop until we have a plan for the future,” Mansell said. “We’re only asking what the state is asking for our town, which is a viable plan that shows that we can in fact supply the businesses and residents of Healdsburg.”
Others in town are seeking detailed accounting of water demand by project component, development timelines and hospitality water use data.
“If we don’t any water, then you can’t hook up stuff. It’s a pretty simple principle,” said Healdsburg resident John Faulkner. “And if you’ve ever gone over to look at Lake Sonoma, if you look at Lake Mendocino, it’s a total freakout. People don’t grasp how dire this is.”
Healdsburg Utilities Director Terry Crowley and other city officials said it’s not clear that what Mansell terms “a pause” would have the desired effect even if the city could legally withdraw from development agreements that have already been negotiated.
None of the projects in the works will require a significant number of hookups until late 2022 or ’23, so the amount of staff time that would be invested in a moratorium for short-term savings would take away from other efforts that could save much more water, they said.
Crews broke ground at the start of the year on 41 low-income rental units on the south end of town in the Mill District, for instance. Thirty-nine luxury homes ranging in price from about $800,000 to more than $5 million will be constructed in the first phase of market rate housing, but the specific plans for those aren’t approved yet, Crowley said.
A 53-room luxury hotel, commercial space and another 120 homes — mostly market-rate condominiums and about 30 middle-income rental apartments — have been envisioned as part of the project, as well, though they could take a decade to build.
The project also is to include a rain capture system and a purple pipeline to carry recycled water through the development once the city is able to fund a system to transport reclaimed wastewater into central Healdsburg, City Manager Jeff Kay said.
City officials also cast doubt on petitioners’ assertion that the city could easily deny already approved water hookups based on the drought emergency, a move Kay said would require findings of “an imminent threat to public health” under state law.
“These are agreements,” Mayor Evelyn Mitchell said. “These people have received entitlements. For us to go back on that would be very difficult and potentially very costly. But I don’t think we need to do that, and we’re not planning to do that.”
In addition, developers are only bringing forward the affordable housing projects badly sought and required under state and regional building allocations because they’re required in exchange for permission to build the resorts and higher-end homes that bring in profits, Kay said.