Vision for housing and hotel development in northern Healdsburg challenged in court
Healdsburg has begun its review of a developer’s proposal to build what would be the city’s largest housing project, a plan on the north end of town that has restoked the fiery debate in this Wine Country destination over the pace of residential growth and hotel development.
Already, the proposal by Southern California-based Comstock Homes has drawn a legal challenge against the city, with opponents asserting the expansive development would run afoul of state environmental regulations.
The project, on a vacant former lumber yard bounded by Healdsburg Avenue and Highway 101 north of Simi Winery, currently calls for more than 350 units of housing and a 120-room hotel.
The housing would be split between 132 income-restricted rental units for the local workforce and a 220-unit senior living community. Plans also call for 20,000 square feet of retail space.
“We have a vision to provide something sorely needed in the community,” said Debra Geiler, Comstock’s director of entitlements. “The mix of housing units and the hotel and all of it is sort of the economic balance. If we succeed, what we will be able to provide to Healdsburg is a paradigm shift in community design and creating neighborhoods.”
But Sebastopol-based California River Watch has filed suit contending that Healdsburg failed to lawfully account for the greenhouse gas emissions the luxury hotel would generate. The lawsuit is a key piece of the group’s goal to force local governments to more closely account for the climate impacts of commercial growth and the region’s tourism economy.
“We have maybe 10 years to make major changes in how we conduct our lives and business activities to avoid irreversible, catastrophic global warming,” said Santa Rosa-based environmental attorney Jerry Bernhaut, who represents the group. “If the only way to get affordable housing is to destroy the environment, then we’re in deep trouble. That’s unconscionable.”
Healdsburg, however, has emerged as one of the county’s most expensive and slowest-growing real estate markets, adding just over 300 new homes in the past decade under the city’s growth cap approved by voters in 2000. The city of roughly 12,000 people has about 5,000 homes, including apartments and houses. At the end of July, the median monthly rental rate was $3,200 and the median sales price for a single-family house was $830,000, according to San Francisco-based real estate service Trulia.
Remade in recent decades from a farm town surrounded by prune and hop orchards into a stop for Wine Country visitors and diners, Healdsburg has also endured a bruising fight over the rate and density of hotel development. The issue came to head late last year with the city adopting new rules banning additional hotels on the central plaza, and limiting future downtown lodging projects to five rooms or fewer.
Yet to attract new housing affordable for its workforce, the city and others in the county have often had to settle for mixed-use developments that offer trade-offs. The common strategy includes deals allowing more profitable elements, such as market-rate homes or hotels, to offset the cost of income-restricted units.
Healdsburg officials have opened the door to such projects, and Comstock Homes’ North Village development is the biggest bid to date. It would surpass the Parkland Farms subdivision, with 346 single-family homes, as the largest housing project in the city’s history.
“A number of documents really suggest that we’re lacking a significant amount of housing. Community surveys also show that housing is the number one focal point in this community,” said City Manager David Mickaelian. “So what we’re trying to do is get the right kind of housing, and get it built as efficiently as possible. And I think the affordable housing component, that’s huge.”
Developer with local ties
Longtime Healdsburg resident Bob Comstock founded Comstock Homes in 1991, and the company has built thousands of homes across the state. The portfolio includes the 34 single-family homes that make up Healdsburg’s Sorrento Square neighborhood. Comstock and his wife, Sandy, also own Comstock Wines in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley.
In 2017, Comstock bought the 32-acre lumber yard property formerly known as Quaker Hill at Healdsburg’s northern edge for $10.3 million, according to the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office. The land is zoned for mixed-use development and falls under a plan prepared by the city for its northern gateway, outlining future commercial and residential growth in the area.
Comstock submitted his plans in June and is in the initial stages of hammering out details of the project with the city. Bob Comstock was unavailable for an interview this week, but Geiler said if the proposal can get approval from Healdsburg’s Planning Commission and City Council, construction would start by late 2020 as part of an 18-month build-out timeline.