PD Editorial: The pluses and mysteries of Chanate sale

On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to take its first vote on a land deal involving the biggest sale of county-owned property in generations.

The agreement involves the sale of the 82-acre site that includes the now-vacant Chanate Road hospital complex and the rolling oak-dotted hills around it. The deal calls for selling the property to Santa Rosa-based developer Bill Gallaher for between $6 million and $11.5 million for the right to build up to 800 homes on the site.

As we’ve noted before, there’s much to like about this project. Of the homes, Gallaher promises to make at least 20 percent affordable to residents with very low incomes, which roughly equates to an annual income of $41,300 for a family of four. Between 100 and 250 of the units would be set aside for seniors, and at least 50 would be rentals for veterans as part of a partnership with local nonprofit groups.

In addition, the developer plans to include a grocery store, a recreation center, a dog park, an amphitheater and at least two miles of hiking trails.

The latest version of this agreement also has one other positive. It no longer includes a key slice of Paulin Creek Preserve. Of course, this sits should never have been included in the project in the first place, given that it’s part of the larger 46-acre preserve that Santa Rosa neighbors had long been told would be protected. Under the deal, Gallaher’s team would now be required to secure a conservation easement for the 10-acre parcel before the overall deal could close. But it comes at a cost to the county as it lowers the upper end sale price by about $1 million.

Given the region’s need for housing, particularly affordable units, this project has housing advocates applauding.

But as indicated by the letters that have appeared in this section in recent weeks and months, it remains shrouded in controversy largely because of the county’s own missteps. Mystery still surrounds the inclusion of the Paulin Creek property in the initial draft of this deal. But since before that, residents have been raising questions about the lack of details about this plan and how and why Gallaher’s proposal was selected over that of a competing bid by Petaluma-based developer Curt Johansen. Johansen’s proposal also came with many questions, but its goal of creating a fully sustainable development created through a collaborative design process involving the county, city and community residents was appealing to many.

The county has been slow to explain why that proposal was considered inferior.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane has suggested that, by law, supervisors have to conduct real estate conversations behind closed doors. But let’s be clear. State transparency laws permit public agencies to meet in closed session when negotiating real estate deals, particularly if and when doing so in public would put the county at a competitive disadvantage. But aside from disclosing proprietary information that a bidder has asked to keep confidential, nothing obligates elected officials to meet in secret if they choose to do otherwise. And certainly nothing prevents public agencies from explaining in detail the decisions that were made behind closed doors. On the contrary, the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act requires disclosure and makes clear that the exceptions to the openness rules “are construed narrowly” meaning that if there is not a specific statutory exception, “the matter must be conducted in public regardless of its sensitivity.”

In the end, the community and this project would have been better served if the process for evaluating the Gallaher and Johansen proposals had been more open and the negotiations were more transparent. As it is, the public has had little opportunity for input, and many unknowns still remain. For example, while county officials say the bulk of the housing will be rental units, that is not clear by the wording of the development agreement itself. Certainly, many of the details will be ironed out if and when the issue goes through the Santa Rosa planning process. But county residents should know up front what they are getting in return for the sale of this prime real estate. Supervisors will still have an opportunity to provide clarity on Tuesday when they hear from the public and explain their vote. They should take advantage of it.

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