New council rejects development of apple packing district
After five years of meetings and $500,000 spent on planning, the Sebastopol City Council has decided to drop a controversial plan to redevelop the town's old apple packing district.
The city's planning director said Wednesday the five-member council had directed staff at its Tuesday night meeting to "terminate" work on the plan.
The plan, which called for buildings of two to four stories featuring shops below and residences above, suffered a decisive blow last fall when two candidates critical of the plan won election to the council. That produced a new majority of four council members with concerns that the plan would allow too much development and result in too much traffic for the town of 7,700 people.
"It overemphasized retail and it overemphasized residential in an area that was not well suited for those uses," Guy Wilson, one of the new council members, said Wednesday.
Wilson noted that land studied in the Northeast Area Specific Plan lies largely in a flood zone and is better suited for industrial uses.
The council did not take a formal vote, according to the city manager's office. The direction, however, reflected sentiments against the development plan by Wilson, Mayor Sarah Gurney and council members Linda Kelley and Kathleen Shaffer.
Councilman Larry Robinson, the plan's lone proponent on the elected body, said Wednesday, "I'm disappointed that the council has chosen to disregard the hard work and input of the hundreds of residents who contributed to what I believe is an excellent plan."
Robinson said the plan offered "smart growth, transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented, high-density, mixed-use" redevelopment as opposed to the low-density sprawl so common in California and the West. The election results, he said, "determined that Sebastopol wants to remain firmly in the 20th century."
The plan was undertaken by the city as a way of providing a vision to landowners and developers on what Sebastopol wanted the area to become. It proposed 300 new residential units and nearly 400,000 square feet of new business and civic space between the Laguna de Santa Rosa and downtown.
Helen Shane, a leader in the efforts to stop the plan, expressed delight with the council's decision.
Shane said the process "had gone off track from the beginning" and the election had been telling when voters chose two plan critics over an appointed incumbent who had backed the plan.
The council asked its staff to come back with recommendations on several issues raised during the many meetings about the plan. They include how far buildings must be set back from certain streets and whether builders can bring in dirt to fill low areas in flood zones.
Wilson, a former school board member, spoke out against the plan at hearings last spring and presented architectural renderings prepared for landowner Barney Aldridge that he said demonstrated the project would be too large.
Aldridge, former CEO of Santa Rosa-based Benchmark Lending, said at the time that the development as portrayed was being scaled back in response to the housing downturn. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Wilson insisted the town had learned from the process and that it "will survive and will thrive" as the council directs its future.
Sebastopol's chamber of commerce had supported the development of a plan for the northeast area and some of its members likely will be disappointed by the council's decision, said Teresa Ramondo, the chamber's executive director.
Ramondo and others noted that in the current economic climate, few landowners and developers are eager to build anything in the northeast area. Nonetheless, she said, the town needs to plan for its economic future.
"There's no way that we can stay the way we are," she said. "We have to move forward and make smart decisions."
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.