Elnoka, the untold story
The Notice of Application for Elnoka, issued by the Department of Community Development on May 9, 2007, hit most Oakmont residents like a thunderbolt out of the clear blue sky. The document described a project of 295 units of apartments, condominiums and townhouses and a 5,000-square-foot shopping center to be located on 9.2 acres of a much larger parcel, designated for Age Restricted Planned Development, owned since 1992 by a Japanese company.
For years, neighbors of this property believed that an adult community akin to Oakmont would eventually be developed. The zoning APD was anchored in Santa Rosa’s 25-year General Plan. How could a change from low to medium density occur without anyone being notified?
To find out, I sat down with Wally Schilpp, co-chairman of the Oakmont Property and Development Committee, who has led the opposition to the proposed project for the past 3 years. According to him, the City of Santa Rosa in 2002 fell short of affordable housing units and was to be sued by the Housing Advocacy Group. In an astonishing move, the City Council asked the director of the Department of Community Development to choose 110 acres throughout the City for rezoning to higher density.
In a matter of two hours (!) the task was accomplished, and behind closed doors, without due process involving the Planning Commission, 20 parcels, including 13 acres at Elnoka, changed their designation with a Negative Declaration in the General Plan.
In 2005 Bill Gallaher, a well-known developer (he built 600 homes in Oakmont) purchased Elnoka from the Japanese, and submitted his building application after the statute of limitations for appeal to the zoning change ran out in 2007.
The battle for Elnoka began. At the first public hearing, it was noticed that one apartment building with 100 units was located outside the changed zoning. The developer withdrew the plans and re-submitted them a few months later, when it was pointed out that the City had not changed its zoning from that of the General Plan. Oakmont Senior Living LLC, Gallaher’s company, requested that the Planning Commission amend the City Plan. Rebuffed at first, the Commission was forced to reverse itself upon the order of the City Attorney.
In March of 2009, after further withdrawals of the project, the result of ongoing design and technical challenges, followed by new submissions, the Department of Community Development sent out notices of the tentative map, conditional use permit, density increase and design review.
At yet another hearing, opponents to the development demanded that an Environmental Impact Report be filed, which Gallaher considered unnecessary, since the zoning change, five years earlier, included a Negative Declaration, meaning that no adverse impact on the environment was found.
The opposition prevailed and on April 21, 2009, the City approved of the necessity of an EIR, due to a host of unresolved problems with the plan. Environmental Impact Reports are in-depth analyses of a project’s impact on the environment, from buildings and view corridors, to noise and air quality, to traffic impacts, geology and cultural resources. Where difficulties arise, mitigation measures must be carefully thought out and explained in the document.
To the opponents of the projects, the substantial increase in traffic on Highway 12, among other considerations, remains a major concern. First rejected and then included is the addition of a traffic light, just a few hundred feet from an existing one at Melita Road. The size of the main apartment building, six stories high, is wholly incompatible with the neighborhoods. The main objection by the opposition lies, therefore, with the failure to address the EIR Section H-A-4 of the General Plan which stipulates that the goal of meeting Santa Rosa’s housing needs, through increased density should be consistent with the preservation of existing neighborhoods, and developments must be designed in context with existing surroundings.
The Elnoka parcel manifestly contradicts this policy, and the fact that the change took place in 2002 in violation of planning procedures, combined with the failure by the City to address this inconsistency of zoning with the General Plan, as required, will be the basis of the appeal to the City Council, now that the Planning Commission has certified the Final EIR.
Wally Schilpp who has worked tirelessly for years on Elnoka, appears optimistic that the City Council will deem the Final Environmental Impact Report incomplete, and will take action to eventually re-establish the former zoning of Adult Planned Development, thereby paving the way for a project in closer harmony with its surroundings and neighborhoods.