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Close to Home: Break down regulatory barriers before passing a tax for housing

Today's housing crisis is a product of land-use decisions made over the past three decades combined with a significant increase in unnecessary and/or duplicative rules and regulations. There is no question that the October fires put an exclamation point on the housing crisis. However, it is imperative to reverse this trend of housing barriers before the community further taxes ourselves toward a solution.

The Board of Supervisors, the Santa Rosa City Council and their planning departments should be commended for implementing policies to expedite rebuilding in the fire zones and priority development areas. However, additional opportunities remain that must be applied to all development within the respective general plans, not just within the fire zones. The Sonoma County Alliance believes taking action is required to positively impact new housing opportunities.

For more than 25 years the county and cities have collected in-lieu fees and real estate transfer taxes intended to be invested in affordable housing. But there is no transparency to how much has been collected, spent or reserved. Publicly detailing these assets and aggressively investing them could give an immediate boost toward much-needing housing projects.

The extreme cost for mitigation of the California tiger salamander and other endangered species has essentially disqualified any projects from being developed in affected areas. We encourage our local officials to work with state and federal regulatory agencies to identify available subsidies and locations with the objective of creating cost-effective alternatives toward compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Many alternatives exist on our public and privately owned land, including holdings of the county's Ag and Open Space District. With the complexity of multiple agencies being involved, these efforts need to begin immediately and with a constant sense of urgency.

We all love Sonoma County, but the protections we have implemented, such as growth ordinances, urban growth boundaries, community separators, the open space district and an incredibly public and intensive approval process, have led to our housing crisis of under supply, over demand and incredibly high prices (even before the fires). Our residents need to universally support the projects that are being proposed within current general plan guidelines, particularly those within transit-oriented and other priority development areas. We (NIMBYS too!)voted in these protections to support the growth of new urbanism concepts. We need to support these projects now.

To date, permits have been issued by Santa Rosa and Sonoma County planning departments to replace approximately 10 percent of the homes lost in October. While it is fair to expect that pace to increase, it will very likely take five to seven years to replace all our lost homes. And this doesn't begin to address the housing crisis we faced before the fires. Approval processes are too long, too expensive and almost non-attainable. We need to be aggressive in making changes in how we get things done. There is no reason to expect a different result as long as we keep doing the same thing. We need to collectively maintain a can-do, will-do, must-do attitude toward moving projects through the approval process.

There will be a significant debate ahead regarding the value of taxing ourselves with proposed housing bonds. There will be no debate about the urgent need for solutions. My own children are among the many who already have committed to their future outside of Sonoma County and California. Until bold change is implemented, this sad trend will continue. We're asking our elected leaders to be bold and our community to be supportive every step of the way.

Brian Ling is CEO and executive director of the Sonoma County Alliance, a local business organization. He lives in Windsor.

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