PD Editorial: Show flexibility in choosing land for development

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Sonoma County needs more housing. It needs market-rate housing. It needs replacement housing for homes lost in the 2017 fires. Most important, it needs affordable housing. A county plan to rezone land on the outskirts of cities after a combined environmental review could create space for some of that housing. Don’t let the naysayers prevent it.

Local governments try to focus development within cities. It’s better to concentrate housing and commercial uses in denser urban areas where people need to drive less and development can share infrastructure. Density is easier on the environment, too, preserving rural lands outside cities for agricultural and other low-impact uses.

That’s a sound approach to master planning for the long term. The problem is when people start to view city limits and urban growth boundaries as more than lines on a map. Some advocates for density try to make the lines inviolable.

The truth is, dense infill development isn’t for everyone. It’s also rarely the best way to put up lots of housing quickly.

The county therefore has a more expansive vision, but not too expansive. Officials asked residents what private land outside of cities might be suitable for residential development. Nearly 200 parcels were suggested. The county narrowed those down to a handful that are close to cities. Specifically, they are in what are called “urban service areas.” Those are properties not within the city proper but within reach of water and sewer services. In other words, they are places where a new subdivision could easily attach to existing utility infrastructure.

Now the county must conduct environmental studies, and it wants to do them all in one big analysis. That’s a reasonable approach to streamline the rezoning process. The community can ill afford more delays.

The 2017 fires destroyed more than 5,000 homes. Rebuilding, alas, is taking far longer than anyone wants. Meanwhile, demand for housing continues to increase. With low supply and high demand, prices of course are high. The result is pent-up demand for 16,000 affordable rental units and thousands more owner-occupied homes.

The land that the county is eyeing would ease some of that pressure. Officials anticipate 500 dwellings on the parcels if the environmental analyses check out and ultimately up to 3,000. It’s a start.

Groups like the North Bay chapter of the Greenbelt Alliance have a fair point when they say that choosing new land for development should be handled through the general plan process. But that process has been delayed multiple times. Amending the plan between major overhauls is not unusual. And, if the process gets underway soon, the results of the environmental analyses can inform decisions regarding the best locations for new housing.

Nor would building outside the cities be unprecedented. Numerous areas outside cities have residential and commercial development — Bodega Bay, Guerneville, the Springs and other unincorporated communities exist throughout the county and have for many years.

That’s not to say the county should encourage sprawl and give up wide swaths of agricultural land. But during a housing crunch like the one Sonoma County now has, it’s reasonable to nibble off a few parcels around the edge while a new master plan remains in the works.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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