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Santa Rosa to relax South Park development rules to encourage mix of housing, businesses

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Santa Rosa officials have simultaneously approved a pot store on the edge of the South Park neighborhood and endorsed new development rules for more than 30 nearby properties, clearing the way for new apartments and a more diverse array of businesses to open on several blocks of Petaluma Hill Road.

The unusual joint action, done unanimously Thursday by the city Planning Commission, combines a private business proposal with the elimination of development rules, nearly 50 years old, that require a special permit for any new property use.

The new rules, which are subject to upcoming City Council approval, align the eastern side of Petaluma Hill Road from Santa Rosa Avenue to the Lola’s Market near Aston Avenue with more permissive development codes seen across Santa Rosa.

For Elizabeth Webley, co-owner of The Hattery on Petaluma Hill, the change is a blessing. Under the older, South Park-specific codes, she needs an expensive city permit if she wanted to open up a coffee shop in the front of her haute couture business. She wouldn’t need special city clearance under the new rules.

“The less I have to work with the Planning Commission, the better,” she said, “Not because I don’t like them, but because it’s confusing.”

Heavy industrial businesses like car transmission repair will not be allowed as a new use under the zoning change. Existing businesses that do not conform with the new zoning, which allows for general commercial use, will be allowed to keep operating provided they do not close up shop for more than six consecutive months.

Lynda Sheehan, who lives on Petaluma Hill Road, was the lone voice of opposition at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting. She claimed the city did an insufficient job of informing local property owners and residents of the proposed changes. She also said that Mercy Wellness, the new cannabis business, wouldn’t improve South Park.

“I don’t see that this pot place is for the neighborhood,” she said.

Susie Murray, a city planner who worked on the zoning proposal, acknowledged that “like anything else, there’s always fear involved,” but she said that most of the feedback she had received about the change had been positive.

She said removing the local permitting requirement will allow property owners to add new business tenants quicker than before and noted that she had received several calls from interested real estate representatives — an indication that the new zoning could lead to higher property values.

Murray, the planner, said the city put up three 8-by-4-foot signs along the rezoning corridor, emailed notices to owners of property near the dispensary, and placed a notice in The Press Democrat prior to Thursday’s commission meeting.

Removing the outdated zoning in favor of a more universal approach to governing development is a point of emphasis for city officials like Murray.

“My goal before I retire is to get rid of all the planned development communities,” she said in an interview last week. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Webley voiced optimism that the new zoning, coupled with new development activity along Petaluma Hill Road — including hundreds of housing units planned near the city’s southern limit — would inject new life into the neighborhood.

“I see a lot of potential on this street and in this neighborhood,” she said. “I definitely have seen a lot of plans in place to change things in this neighborhood, and it may be a good thing.”

No date has been set for the City Council’s vote on the zoning measures.

Commissioners gave brief but positive reviews to Mercy Wellness — operator of a dispensary in Cotati for nearly a decade — before voting to let the company start selling cannabis from the site of a former auto repair shop at 900 Santa Rosa Ave. The approval is final unless it is appealed to the City Council. Company officials said they aimed to open the doors in six months.

Executive director Brandon Levine focused his presentation on his company’s experience complying with California’s marijuana rules and the safety measures Mercy Wellness plans to implement before it begins selling cannabis.

“With our security system, it matches that of a casino,” Levine said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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