Sonoma County wants to transform three large taxpayer-owned properties in Santa Rosa into new housing, with plans calling for as many as 1,200 units, a surge of supply in even greater demand after the destruction wrought by last year’s wildfires.
But with each of the county properties, which are either vacant or in need of improvements, the goals of government and developers have proven elusive, slowing the creation of new housing at a critical time, after nearly 5,300 homes were lost in the county in October’s fires.
The Board of Supervisors earlier this year floated a goal to add 30,000 housing units countywide over the next five years — a number county officials said would be needed to keep the local economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families. But that lofty goal could remain far out of reach if government-spearheaded projects can’t break ground.
“These seem like they should be low-hanging fruit in terms of projects,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes two of the three sites. “Quite frankly, it feels like it should be easier than this, and it feels like it shouldn’t involve quite so many iterations of the process.”
The largest of three developments, and Santa Rosa’s largest single housing proposal in years — about 870 units, mostly apartments, on county-owned land off Chanate Road — faces a stiff legal challenge from neighbors and other opponents that could stall the project.
Across town, on West College Avenue, a developer’s objections over the sale of another county-owned property for housing have already postponed a deal that could deliver about 145 units.
And on Sebastopol Road in Roseland, a long-awaited redevelopment effort promising 175 apartments has been bogged down by a conflict tied to a large homeless camp now on site, plus issues arising from Roseland’s annexation into the city and financing difficulties.
The lengthy process required to launch the three proposed developments, all of them years in the making, has frustrated county officials and developers at a time when residents are pushing for speedy replacement of thousands of desperately needed homes.
Together, the three properties could supply nearly as many housing units as have been constructed in Santa Rosa in the past five years. But the difficulties faced by each site raise questions about how large a role the county’s properties can play in meeting the deep regional need.
The obstacles are forcing county and city officials to mull other ways to spur development, by clearing some permit requirements and easing the path for denser housing projects in particular areas.
“Every single project, taken by itself, will have what appear to be legitimate reasons why there ought to be extensive public review,” said Larry Florin, chief executive of the local affordable housing company Burbank Housing, which is involved in part of the planned housing on Chanate Road. “Whether it’s the impact on the neighbors, whether it’s the impact on some endangered species, whether it’s sound, light — you name whatever proxy is used to try and slow down a project ... But in a housing crisis, it can’t be business as usual.”
Local officials have for several years viewed the Chanate Road property, site of the former county hospital complex, as a prime opportunity to create a large number of new housing units. Nearly three years after Sutter Health moved out of the site, supervisors last summer agreed to sell 82 acres of the sprawling campus — which spans 117 acres in total — to local developer Bill Gallaher.