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Sebastopol City Council zoning code changes

4 p.m. Tuesday for study session

Public hearing to follow at 6 p.m. meeting

Sebastopol Youth Annex/Teen Center, 425 Morris St.

The Sebastopol City Council will take its first run Tuesday at updating zoning blueprints with an eye toward clearing barriers to housing development, especially for lower-income residents.

The move is part of an ongoing effort by city officials to promote affordable housing in a town with little new construction and a median home price of $875,000, among the highest in the county.

The discussion will focus on ways to make it more feasible to build high-density housing, urban infill projects, granny units, tiny homes, manufactured housing and the like.

“Obviously, with the housing crisis — that is, the lack of available housing — there was an interest in looking at land-use decisions that could promote housing,” Planning Commission Chairman Zac Douch said. “I don’t think it’s to stimulate growth, per se, as it is to try to encourage the right kind of housing in the city.”

The Bay Area housing crunch is well established throughout Sonoma County, where the rental vacancy rate was a mere 1 percent even before October wildfires destroyed nearly 5,300 homes countywide.

Sebastopol, home to about 7,700 people in about 3,500 housing units, was outside the fires’ paths. But as a smaller city with tightly drawn boundaries and no obvious tracts left to develop large housing projects, growth has been slow.

The Association of Bay Area Governments has given the city a target of 156 new housing units between 2015 and 2023.

By comparison, only 34 housing units were constructed from 2013 to 2017. This year, only 10 housing units are slated for construction, according to city records.

“We’re dealing with a town that’s already basically built out,” said Kenyon Webster, Sebastopol’s planning director. “So some of these discussions (about adding housing) become very technical, for very small potential.”

The seven-member Planning Commission has worked for months on proposed amendments to the zoning ordinance, a step to ensure its consistency with the revised general plan adopted in late 2016 by the City Council.

New provisions have been added for uses such as community gardens, vacation rentals, bee keeping, food trucks, commercial barbecues, maker spaces, wine tasting rooms and co-working environments.

A new “Commercial Industrial District” would accommodate combined retail and manufacturing at The Barlow marketplace on the eastern edge of town.

But a large number of proposed amendments apply to residential building, including features that reduce vehicle parking requirements, raise lot density allowances, establish smaller minimum lot sizes and setbacks and loosen requirements for inclusion of affordable housing in larger, multiunit market-rate projects.

The proposed revisions come with a challenge to balance housing construction against oft-repeated calls by residents to prioritize Sebastopol’s small town feel, without sprawl.

Smaller and more affordable units to accommodate young adults and older residents are in greater demand, Mayor Patrick Slayter said.

Higher-density units for one or two people are “a relatively easy target,” Slayter said. “Those are dwelling units that the need is demonstrated, both for younger people and for those at the other end of the age spectrum, and you can put more of them in a location than you can a single-family dwelling.”

The city last year doubled its residential growth allowance to 50 units per year, or 750 by 2035, though affordable housing and accessory dwelling units don’t count toward that number.

In February, the council ordered a change in fees for new housing construction, ensuring that those for small dwelling units are lower than larger ones. The fees help cover costs for sewer and water connections, parks and traffic safety.

Proposed revisions advanced by the Planning Commission include:

An allowance for conversion of a bedroom in a single-family home into a secondary unit of 500 square feet or less, with a separate entrance, kitchen facilities and shared or separate bathroom.

An allowance for granny-type units, of up to 1,000 square feet on parcels of 15,000 square feet or greater (most accessory units would still be capped at 840 square feet).

New standards for housing that includes manufactured homes, trailers or recreational vehicles that can be parked on a residential site for use in providing care to an ailing or elderly person.

A three-story, 40-foot maximum height for dedicated affordable housing.

An allowance for multi-family housing development in commercial districts.

Lower, tiered affordable housing mandates for inclusion in larger residential developments of five or more parcels or dwelling units, to reduce the burden on smaller projects.

The commission took “a nuanced approach,” Douch said.

“We didn’t wholesale go through to try and make it easier to build so much as look at things that might be inhibiting growth of, for instance, low-income housing. We’ve had very, very little housing built as low-income units for the last 20 years.”

At least one Planning Commission member, Paul Fritz, plans to petition the council for more aggressive measures than those advanced by the commission.

Fritz, an architect, said big, bold moves not “baby steps,” are necessary to address the housing crisis. “I think we definitely are moving in the right direction, but I also feel that there’s more that we can do,” he said.

Secondary units could be larger than 840 square feet, so they can more easily accommodate families; minimum parking requirements for residential development could be eliminated; and setbacks in some zoning districts could be reduced further, he said.

“We do this zoning for kind of one-size-fits-all, but each development is unique,” Fritz said. “You can’t always anticipate what all the issues are going to be, so giving some flexibility to deal with whatever the unique constraints of the site are helpful for developers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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