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Rohnert Park will for the first time impose a fee on developers of rental housing to help spur creation of more affordable units, while exempting one of the single-largest projects in the city — redevelopment of a 32-acre downtown property to create a long coveted city center.

The City Council worked through an at-times contentious discussion Tuesday evening about how its residential mitigation policy will apply to the future downtown district south of Rohnert Park Expressway, in addition to all other new developments moving forward. The construction of the central downtown destination, near the city’s existing SMART train platform, is viewed as a priority among council members and played heavily to exempt San Francisco-based Laulima Development from the new housing fees.

“We have to think of the long-term viability for the city for the downtown area,” said Mayor Pam Stafford. “I just think that this request is really reasonable. It’s not like we’re not doing our part or we’re not helping our community” with affordable housing.

Laulima closed on the former site of the shuttered State Farm Insurance last December for $13.5 million and now envisions a retail and dining hub that also includes 415 housing units, office space and public amenities. Real estate developer SunCal previously owned the property, but the Irvine company sold after it was unable to come to terms with the city on its own large-scale mixed-use redevelopment concept.

The structure of the new housing rules guiding Sonoma County’s third-largest city will require builders of rental housing to pay $3.23 per square foot per project to help fund future affordable units — a fee level which city staff presented as the median cost for the region. Rohnert Park had not charged such an impact fee in the past, and council members debated whether the added expense might produce a chilling effect on future apartments and condos before voting 4-1 to approve it.

Preliminary plans for the State Farm site show Laulima intends to include as many as 270 above-business apartments. Had the exemption from those fees granted in a separate 4-1 vote, the updated policy would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars alone from that project to support future affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

Councilman Jake Mackenzie was the lone dissenter on both votes.

“I just feel that we’re trying to make policy on the fly, project-by-project,” Mackenzie said. “We desperately need to have an overall affordable housing policy for the city of Rohnert Park. I think we have in fact provided housing way beyond other cities, but I also believe that we need to examine the resources we have and look to our ability to continue to excel.”

In Rohnert Park, 485 homes were built within city limits in the past five years, according to city figures reported to state housing authorities. In the same period, Petaluma, the second largest city, saw 632 homes completed. In Santa Rosa, the county’s largest city, 1,258 homes were built over the past five years, but the October fires wiped out more than twice that total in one night.

Overall, county officials estimate that the additional supply of houses and apartments needed to comfortably house residents and sustain the economy could be as high as 30,000 units.

Before the fires, Rohnert Park accounted for roughly 8 percent of the county’s total population of more than 500,000 and an equal share of its housing supply of 208,000 units.

Tuesday’s decisions follow a Rohnert Park council meeting this past October where members opted to begin allowing required affordable housing offsets on smaller for-sale development to be paid in the form of an in-lieu fee rather than construction of units within the same project. The policy shift means developers with 50 or fewer market-rate homes in a project now have the option to pay $12,400 each rather than build the required 15 percent affordable units within the project.

Neither will apply at the former State Farm site with the council’s vote to exempt the downtown district. Instead, the council directed staff to pursue the procurement of 15 affordable units — a 10 percent offset for the 150 market-rate homes currently proposed — by Laulima, for families with a maximum annual household income of $59,000.

In approving the downtown exemption, council members said they wanted to keep a lid on rising development costs and argued that Rohnert Park will already have met its 15 percent affordable housing goal in the area when the project is built out.

Rohnert Park, several council members said, is not on the hook to bail out the rest of the county with affordable housing, particularly through its marquee project.

“Sure, Sonoma County is in a crisis. I agree with that,” said Vice Mayor Joe Callinan. “But Rohnert Park has done its fair share per capita. I’m not saying that we don’t do anymore, but I would love for the other cities in this county to do their fair share.”

Rohnert Park presently has a mix of affordable housing in the downtown corridor, totaling 308 units and seven more units in the pipeline. If the city can secure 15 more units from Laulima in the downtown deal, the total supply would increase to 330 units.

With another 140 affordable units existing on the outskirts of the downtown district, the majority of the council felt the city already is meeting its subsidized housing stock responsibilities.

“We have 450 affordable units right in that area, within walking distance of the SMART train,” said Stafford. “That’s a lot of affordable housing in that area. What our reports tell us is we need more moderate-income housing. We don’t have any at all … except for a few over there” in the University District.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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