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Springs Specific Plan reviewed by local MAC shows similarity to SDC process

Springs Specific Plan reviewed by local MAC shows similarity to SDC process
The Sonoma Springs Community Hall in Boyes Hot Springs.Photo by Paul Goguen

By Christian Kallen

While many Sonoma Valley residents are paying close attention to development of the SDC Specific Plan to determine the future of the former Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), many are also keeping a close eye on Permit Sonoma’s Springs Specific Plan, a planning vision for the Highway 12 corridor from Agua Caliente Road to the Sonoma city limits.

The Springs Municipal Advisory Council (Springs MAC), a parallel organization to the North Sonoma Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NSV MAC), met on June 8, to review drafts of the Springs Specific Plan and Environmental Impact Report. The documents were presented by Doug Bush of Permit Sonoma and reviewed by the seven-member MAC, chaired by former El Verano School principal Maite Iturri. For the Springs area, the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) and draft Springs Specific Plan were released on May 18 and are now available for review. The public review period for the DEIR will run until July 19, a longer, 60-day period than the usual 45 days.

The Specific Plan process officially began in 2015 and, as Bush noted, this was before the Springs MAC itself had formed. He presented maps outlining the borders of the Springs as defined in the specific plan, and articulated the key elements of the plan, based not only on county policy but what he said were 20 “outreach events” held between 2016 and 2018, leading up to this Springs MAC review.

What does the Specific Plan recommend?

The Springs Specific Plan recognizes the Springs corridor as a mixed-use “downtown,” with an identified location for a central community plaza (the intersection of Boyes Boulevard and Sonoma Highway has been proposed for this plaza). As well as “(celebrating) the unique, multi-cultural identity of the Springs,” the plan aims to increase affordable workforce and mixed-use housing; improve pedestrian, bicycle, and transit networks; ensure adequate parking; address community safety, integrate parks and open space into community planning; and meet state requirements to accommodate more housing.

The MAC members themselves had a chance to ask questions of the planner Bush, and councilmember Iris Lombard said that in skimming through the plan, she “was struck by the tension between climate change and growth — and this plan is really about growth in the Springs.” She mentioned that climate change has become a more crucial component of planning in the past few years, and “there are several things in the plan that seem at odds to each other,” citing potential conflicts between the Springs area and the county, and the county and Caltrans, the state transportation authority.

Lombard also brought up the fate of the so-called Donald Street area, or North Sonoma, that seems to have been subsumed into the designated Springs area.

“Located immediately north of the City of Sonoma, the Springs Plan Area includes parts of the unincorporated communities of Aqua Caliente, Fetters Hot Springs, and Boyes Hot Springs,” the plan states. “Covering approximately 178 acres, the plan area is bounded by Aqua Caliente Road at the north and Verano Avenue at the south and is bisected by the Highway 12 commercial corridor.”

The Springs as defined in the map itself, however, raised questions, especially from residents of the North Sonoma/Donald Street neighborhood, which is north of Verano Avenue and east of Highway 12. Until the renewal of an urban growth boundary (UGB) by the voters in the City of Sonoma in 2020, that area was in Sonoma’s “sphere of influence” (SOI). But the 2020 UGB dropped the area from the SOI, leaving the county as the primary agency of management for the neighborhood.

This issue, once again, proved the sharpest at this public meeting. Paul Rockett, who lives on Donald Street and is a spokesperson for a neighborhood group called Friends of North Sonoma, called the updated DEIR one of “the most thoughtless and punitive documents I’ve ever had the misfortune to read.”

He argued that none of the amenities outlined in the DEIR or Specific Plan will come to the Donald Street neighborhood, including bikeways, sidewalks, and added parking spaces — but the housing density is the highest in the plan. The neighborhood would absorb 85 percent of proposed housing, said Rockett, despite being only 35 percent of the area in the plan. This would also mean more traffic and cars. Rockett said this is “not fair. It’s just not acceptable. It’s dangerous from a safety point of view.”

It has long been the position of Rockett and his neighbors that their neighborhood was added to the Springs Specific Plan primarily to meet state goals for additional housing, even though the residents and other Sonomans have never considered the area as part of the Springs.

The MAC agreed to write a letter as comment to Permit Sonoma, reflecting their input and that of the public comment. Vice-chair Hannah Perot, however, threw the harsh light of reality on those comments in mid-meeting: “I mean, are our changes actually going to be made to the plan or do not?… I love that there’s public comment but sometimes it’s like this is just a sounding board.

“So I just would like to be honest with people and their efforts before they start writing letters and analyzing zoning maps — we’re going with the plan,” said Perot. “Is anything going to really be changed here, or can we just be upfront and honest about the reality of the process?”

The comment letter from the Springs MAC to Permit Sonoma about the Specific Plan will be added to the draft environmental report, said Bush. It will be read and voted on by the full MAC at its next meeting, on July 13 at 6:30 p.m.