Supervisors take steps to protect rebuilders, neighborhoods from speculators
Gorin says changes don’t go far enough, pushes for more flexibility in county process
Adobe Canyon resident Velma Sims spoke in favor of the moratorium extension, citing concern that speculative vacation rental landlords are specifically targeting the Kenwood area with the intention to buy everything that becomes available.
“Our community is already compromised. It’s not really a community any more. It’s been devastated by the fire and we hope it’s not going to be further devastated by predatory investors,” she said at the Oct. 23 meeting.
This concern over rebuilding neighborhoods in the same spirit as before the fires also arose during the discussion of a more complex item on the agenda: a revision of the county housing ordinance, designed to incentivize the development of different types of housing, ones that might help alleviate a “housing crisis” in a county where the median home price is $660,000 and the rental vacancy rate hovered at 1.5 percent before the fires took their toll.
These new ordinance changes, which go into effect at the end of this month, apply to all parcels in the unincorporated areas of the county that fall within an Urban Service Area. Sonoma Valley’s Urban Service Area (USA) extends from Schellville north into Glen Ellen, approximately to the Warm Springs Road and Arnold Drive intersection. Residents are most likely in a USA if they receive sewer or water service. Kenwood does not fall within any USA.
Also approved by a 5-0 vote, the changes include simplifying development standards for multi-family housing, adopting new standards for measuring development density on a parcel – a model designed to encourage smaller housing units rather than larger ones – and establishing a new zoning overlay called Workforce Housing Combining Zone that could be applied to parcels that meet certain requirements like being close to public transportation or a job hub.
But the change that saw the most discussion was the introduction of a new type of housing called “Cottage Housing Developments,” promoted as a bridge between apartments and single family homes. The county already allows the development of duplexes and triplexes, but a “cottage cluster” would consist of attached or detached cottage developments clustered around a shared courtyard with common parking and open spaces. Three units could be built with a design review, and more than three would require a use permit.
While this is a county-wide policy, the number of vacant parcels that could meet the requirements for this type of housing are clustered in burned areas like Larkfield/Wikiup, with 407 parcels, and Glen Ellen, with 45 parcels. Fourth District Supervisor James Gore said that many residents in the Larkfield area have expressed concerns that allowing this type of new housing on residential lots might cause the neighborhood to be rebuilt “in a substantially different way” – with blocks of cottage units instead of with the traditional single family homes that were lost in the fire. Responding to those concerns, Gore opted to ban the cottage developments from the burned area in his district for a period of five years (until 2023).
In contrast, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who said she is seeking whatever “creative ideas” and “flexibility” she can for fire victims trying to rebuild in her district, voted to allow cottage developments in the burned areas of her district, with the limit of one development per block (approximately 400 square feet) to address over-concentration concerns. That limit would also be revisited in five years.
However, Gorin expressed frustration that these new ordinance changes do little to help the majority of residents struggling to rebuild in the Sonoma Valley. “This is not working for a lot of the folks in my district,” she said. Many homeowners are struggling to afford to rebuild their house and would like the option to rebuild a family compound or two smaller units under one roof instead of the larger house they lost, she said.
These new changes only affect those parcels in a USA, served by existing sewer and water. Those on a septic system are limited by the septic system’s capacity, which is tied to the number of bedrooms.
“This package is really focused on urban service areas, city centered growth,” said Jennifer Barrett, the county’s deputy director of Planning. If a parcel is on septic, she said, the available options are to build a primary unit and secondary unit (up to 1,200 square feet) and additional attached unit (up to 500 square feet). But the number of bedrooms is still tied to the existing septic system’s capacity.
“Most of the folks that are struggling are in the septic areas, so I’m going to push hard on that,” said Gorin. She pointed out that neighborhoods in Kenwood are served by a water system, and Glen Ellen has sewer and water in some places. “I want a conversation to look at the ways people in those areas can afford to rebuild.”
“My rebuilders can’t afford to wait another year to provide some flexibility. They are either going to sell the lot, or just hold on to it, and that’s not going to get us where we want to go.”
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.