Compromise legislation will help spur apartment building near North Bay train stations

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Two Northern California state legislators on Wednesday announced a deal to drive development of high-density housing near public transportation hubs in cities like Santa Rosa, without forcing smaller North Bay towns to allow apartment construction near Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit stations.

The compromise between Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, both of whom want to reform state housing and zoning laws, provides a path forward for Wiener’s legislation to spur housing projects near train and ferry stations and bus stops with consistent and frequent service.

The bill is among a slew of efforts proposed by state and local officials to address the affordable housing crunch that has plagued Sonoma County and much of California. State housing officials have estimated that California needs to build about 2 million new homes by 2025.

“Today we sent a message that the status quo cannot stand. Our housing crisis hurts families, workers, children, our environment, and the list goes on,” Wiener, chair of the Senate Housing Committee, said in a statement. “We can no longer afford inaction. SB 50 will help ensure that future generations are able to live in California, will help combat climate change by getting people out of their cars and onto public transit, and will create more equitable communities by allowing affordable housing to be built in neighborhoods with good schools and public investment.”

McGuire, whose coastal district stretches from the Marin Headlands to the Oregon border, framed the compromise as a way to avoid a one-size-fits-all law. In a statement, McGuire said housing policies that work in downtown Los Angeles may not be appropriate for smaller California communities.

“And I’m also a believer that no community should see dramatic change, but every community should see some change,” McGuire said.

The McGuire-helmed Senate Government and Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday, though the legislation has yet to reach the Senate floor. The compromise legislation would create two different sets of rules for counties statewide, depending on whether the number of people living there is above or below 600,000.

Sonoma and Marin counties are among those in the smaller category, in which only cities with 50,000 or more residents — such as Santa Rosa, Petaluma, San Rafael and Novato in the North Bay — would be subject to provisions that push denser, taller buildings near transit, including allowing an additional story on top of existing local building height rules.

Those larger cities also will be affected by a McGuire-authored clause in the legislation that would remove parking requirements for developments close to transit, such as an apartment complex within a quarter-mile of Santa Rosa’s downtown SMART station.

For months Santa Rosa has been working to encourage denser development near its two rail depots. Earlier this year, for instance, City Council approved a measure allowing apartment complexes within a half-mile of a SMART station to include up to twice as many market-priced apartments as would otherwise be allowed — if developers pledge to build additional affordable housing as part of the project.

Due to months of local policy changes like that, SB 50 as written may not have that great of an effect on Santa Rosa, said David Guhin, the assistant city manager.

“We’ve done almost everything possible to allow increased density where we think it’s appropriate, which is downtown and near transit,” Guhin said.

The city will continue to revise its downtown residential development plans over the next several months and is holding two open houses to solicit feedback: 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 1 at the downtown library branch, 211 E St., and 9 a.m. to noon May 4 at Chop’s Teen Club, 509 Adams St.

The compromise bill also would give developers statewide the right to build four-unit housing projects with streamlined approval and strengthen requirements to ensure construction of certain affordable housing developers build in conjunction with market-priced developments. Coastal areas and places deemed to be at a very high risk for wildfires would be exempt from the bill as written, according to Wiener’s office.

City Councilman Chris Rogers said that “very difficult” conversations about adding housing in Santa Rosa were not new for the city and said he appreciated McGuire’s efforts to add flexibility to the housing bill. Rogers said he wasn’t surprised the legislation’s pro-density provisions didn’t apply to the state’s most fire-prone areas.

“I think people would have been crying bloody murder if (lawmakers) had mandated that level of density in the fire zones,” Rogers said.

Rohnert Park, a small but growing city with a SMART train station, presents an interesting case of how SB 50 will be applied. A spokesman for Wiener said that cities like Rohnert Park would be subject to the bill’s transit-density provisions once its population eclipses 50,000.

Rohnert Park assistant city manager Don Schwartz said the city “certainly” would reach that mark within a decade if it maintained its pace of residential development.

“We are adding housing at a rapid pace,” Schwartz said.

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