Sonoma County seeks single review, rezoning for dozens of potential high-density housing projects

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Sonoma County officials are seeking to clear the way for about four dozen higher density housing projects — with at least 500 or more dwellings — on private land just outside city limits by rezoning certain parcels and consolidating separate environmental reviews for those projects into one overarching study.

The plan has drawn concern from advocates for urban infill development, who say changes to zoning should be reserved for the county’s looming general plan update, a step that has been delayed at least twice since the 2017 wildfires destroyed thousands of homes, exacerbating the county’s housing shortage.

The county on Sept. 16 opened up bidding on a contract to conduct an environmental study on the proposed rezoning. The company will be asked to identify suitable land for high-density development from among 180 parcels submitted by owners as possible building sites. The contract also calls for a study of the impact on natural resources, traffic and other amenities from building on those selected sites.

County officials say the unified move — grouping separate housing proposals together in one study — could create at least 500 dwellings and save at least a year in associated processing times for environmental reviews that would otherwise be required for each of the proposals. The county’s website pegs the maximum amount of housing possible from the initiative at 3,000 dwellings, a massive bump for the county, which needs more than 16,000 affordable rental homes to meet current demands, according to the California Housing Partnership’s May 2019 Sonoma County Housing Emergency Update.

“It is absolutely geared toward identifying sites appropriate for housing and readying them for development by doing the environmental work up front,” said Jane Riley, comprehensive planning manager for Sonoma County.

The review work would pave the way for amendments to the county’s general plan and rezoning of sites to match new general plan densities, both of which would need to be approved by the planning Sonoma County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, Riley said.

Teri Shore, regional director for the North Bay chapter of the Greenbelt Alliance, said the move seems premature.

“The general plan update — that’s the opportunity to look at the bigger picture,” Shore said. “It’s a little bit cart before the horse to be rezoning for housing when we don’t have all of the information on population numbers that will come through the general plan update.”

The general plan was adopted more than 11 years ago, and its overhaul was delayed each of the past two years due to ongoing recovery efforts from natural disasters — the 2017 fires and floods this year and last.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt acknowledged the delays and said the board is still working to secure the money necessary to start and finish the process of creating another general plan. Rabbitt said general plan amendments are common, as the board can’t see the future.

“We’ve had them every year I’ve been here,” he said.

The unorthodox housing initiative, one Rabbitt hailed as “innovative,” stems from an unprecedented request from county leaders, who asked residents in the wake of the 2017 fires to identify vacant or underutilized properties that could be rezoned for future housing projects. The fires wiped out more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, including about 5% of Santa Rosa’s housing stock.

At the time of the initiative’s inception last year, Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said housing supply was “an extreme challenge that requires extreme actions.”

“The government can’t just sit back and wait for projects,” he said. “We need to engage the community as partners in the process.”

Residents nominated 180 sites for housing, but Riley said many of those didn’t meet the county’s basic criteria. The suitable parcels, according to the county, sit outside of city boundaries but within what’s known as urban service areas — sites with ready access to water and sewer services.

But Shore said she’d like to see leaders hone in on development within urban growth boundaries. Those are tighter borders, mostly within city limits, designed to limit sprawl.

Riley estimated that 50 sites were usable, drawing on her 20 years of experience in local planning.

She said a single environmental impact report should work for the disparate parcels, pointing to similar efforts in Southern California that have yielded new housing.

Shore said she’s hesitant to comment further on the initiative, or the planned environmental review, until she knows where the parcels are located, how many would be affordable and has other details.

She stressed that the Greenbelt Alliance does not oppose new housing development, a charge that some have leveled at the group and its environmental allies.

“We’re supporting the right development in the right places, and we have been for 10 years,” Shore said. “If it’s the right development in the right places, we’re all for it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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