ELNOKA neighbors fear traffic, wildfire evacucation
By Jay Gamel
One thing is clear about Elnoka, developer Bill Gallaher’s proposed senior care facility near the intersection of Melita Road and Sonoma Highway: It’s very large. Not many people living in next-door Oakmont like the idea of an additional 697 residential units, including 74 cottages, 528 apartments in a dozen or more multistory buildings, 12 attached units for employee housing, and a 62-unit care center. All buildings are situated between Oakmont and the Spring Lake Village senior care facility, nestled up to Trione-Annadel State Park.
The impact of daily and emergency traffic on Sonoma Highway is the central theme of complaints aired at a May 27 virtual Santa Rosa Planning Commission hearing taking comments on a recently released draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) that was ordered a month before the first of many wildfires devastated properties along the highway.
The Elnoka project manager, Steve McCullagh, said, “Our application was submitted back in 2017, and the city officially declared it a complete application in 2017. I believe it’s fair to say that four years is ample time to study environmental impacts of our proposed development. We believe the DEIR is thorough, well written, adequate, and sufficient.”
“Basing a draft EIR on the situation in August 2017 is like Hiroshima planning an air raid plan based on the situation in June of 1945,” Rick Denniston countered. “We’ve gone through major fires and Sonoma Highway is a nightmare and a potential death trap in evacuations. These evacuations are going to continue, and putting a thousand more residents in that area isn’t going to work. We’ve got to stop packing that area, that firescape, with people.”
Denniston expressed confusion that the DEIR found traffic resulting from the project will have no “significant impact.”
The adjacent Oakmont development, just east of the proposed units, has about 4,500 residents of ages 55 and up. Spring Lake Village, on the other side of the project, is also populated by seniors.
“The draft EIR confirms that the property is sandwiched between a Very High Fire Danger zone to the northeast and a High Fire Danger zone to the south,” veteran land-use consultant Jean Kapolchok told the commissioners. “The property itself burned in the 2020 Glass Fire, including the three homes on the site.”
Kapolchok noted that the DEIR only requires an evacuation plan to be made after approval. “There are two ways in and out of the property,” she said. “The existing plan has about 200 units … backed to Annadel state park. The closest access to this area would be Melita Road … It is likely that this access point could be clogged at time of evacuation.”
“An up-to-date assessment of the overall impact should be a minimum requirement for approval for any proposed Elnoka project,” Oakmont resident Wally Schilpp said. Schilpp has been the lead spokesperson for the Oakmont community on various proposals made for the Elnoka site. The name “Elnoka” comes from the first two letters of the names of a previous owner’s three daughters.
The 726-page DEIR was posted by the planning department on Friday evening, April 30, along with another 2,457 pages and 12 technical attachments, including the 396-page traffic report.
Public comments were accepted through June 15. After they have been considered and responses drafted, the DEIR will return to the planning commission for adoption, modification, or rejection later this summer.
The Elnoka retirement community would employ approximately 194 people in fulland part-time positions, including care staff, housekeepers, landscaping, maintenance, administrative, and recreation center staff. There would be an average of 75 employees on site daily. Residents and employees will likely be drawn largely from the Santa Rosa area. The 68.7-acre site would be developed in phases.
According to the staff report, the project includes amenities like private and formal dining rooms, a café, entertainment and activity rooms, sports courts, a swimming pool, pet parks, walking paths, a beauty salon, reading rooms, banking services, a business center, and outside courtyards. Staff would provide housekeeping, emergency response, exercise programs, and living assistance for memory- or physically- impaired residents.” The staff report also concludes the project would result in unavoidable impacts to the scenic vista and visual character of the area, but all other impacts could be ameliorated with mitigation requirements, including traffic.
The traffic study prepared by W-Trans concluded that unacceptable impacts to traffic at Oakmont Drive and Melita Road could only be mitigated by widening Sonoma Highway, which it also noted was unlikely to happen. The traffic study also suggests mitigation through a new stoplight (or roundabout) at the development entrance, less than a quartermile from the existing stoplight at Los Alamos Road Significant effects on the scenic vista would result from the “visually dense character that is aesthetically inconsistent with surrounding area.” Hwy. 12 is designated a “scenic highway” and nearby Los Alamos is a “scenic road.” The building density also adversely impacts the “visual character” of views from Los Alamos Road.
The planning commission will take action on the proposed development after the comment period closes on June 15.