Community separator renewal, expansion heads to supervisors
Debate over exceptions for affordable housing
In 1996, Sonoma County voters happily approved setting aside 17,000 acres between cities to slow significant development and preserve green spaces between densely developed areas. With that law expiring at the end of this year, voters will be asked once again to approve the idea of community separators, this time for 30 years, and set aside a lot more land, up to 58,500 acres.
The ordinance language is being developed by the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD). It is designed to extend and expand the existing community separators, reword some General Plan Policy language to conform to the new law, and fix errors and omissions made the first time around.
Community separators don’t stop development. Whatever was permitted before the zoning overlay continues to be allowed – with the addition of a design review requirement. What is not permitted is increasing development potential on these lands – for example, no turning a five-lot parcel into a 20-home subdivision or apartment complex. At least not without a county-wide vote of approval. The five lots that were available before the land was designated a community separator, however, can still be developed.
There’s no change in what farmers can do, either: they can build wineries, change crops, and do whatever they could do before. They just can’t ask the county to approve increasing the existing density permitted on the property.
The county created community separators to compliment Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs). Incorporated cities set their internal boundaries – UGBs – and the county wraps that with community separators, limiting development just outside the cities. Community separators and UGBs work together to encourage city-centered growth – up, not out – to avoid the urban sprawl that characterizes most of the Bay Area. Coupled with passage (and later renewal) of a tax to support acquisition of open space in 1990, Sonoma has effectively slowed, if not stopped altogether, urban expansion into neighboring farmlands.
There are exceptions that would allow increased density on community separators that would allow the Board of Supervisors to add, to subtract and add back with no net loss, to reduce density and/or intensity of use, and to correct mapping errors.
On advice from county counsel’s office, staff added language that would allow “100 percent affordable housing projects” to be built in the separators, on the grounds that regional planning estimates require counties to show an inventory of property sufficient to build enough housing to support projected needs. Regional planning agency approval is necessary for the county to qualify for many Federal and state housing grants.
The ongoing housing crunch – crisis, even – in affordable housing, however, has led to accusations that stifling city expansion is stifling housing growth.
While almost all of the speakers from the 50 people attending the hearing supported the idea of extending community separators for another 30 years, there were several differences of opinion on whether affordable housing should be allowed in separators.
“Open space is what Sonoma County is,” Caitlin Cornwall of the Sonoma Ecology Center said, “and it’s what we are. Affordable housing should not contribute to marginalization.” She challenged the idea that affordable housing should be built on city outskirts rather than closer to services and transportation hubs.
Paddy Selwyn of Preserve Rural Sonoma County agreed.
“Put affordable housing within urban boundaries,” she said. “If this had been discussed at the public hearings, it would have gotten pushback.”
Dick Fogg, the planning commissioner representing Sonoma Valley and the First District, was very concerned that voters may not make the fine legal distinctions surrounding the affordable housing exceptions and reject the measure altogether. Commission Chair Paula Cook agreed, noting that, adding the exception as some sort of “regulatory insurance policy” may be a practical matter for regulatory purposes, but it doesn’t make political sense. With the support of Commissioner Willy Lamberson, the affordable housing exception was taken out on a three to two vote.
It could be added back later by the Board of Supervisors.
Sonoma Valley additionsFour public workshops held earlier this year clearly indicated public support not only to renew the existing separators, but to significantly expand them, including in Sonoma Valley.
Currently, the Northeast Santa Rosa Community Separator in the First District covers about 3,300 acres from Santa Rosa to Kenwood, mostly on the east side of Highway 12, roughly down to Hoff Road and even to Adobe Canyon in part. An additional 1,400 acres is included in the existing Glen Ellen/Agua Caliente Community Separator.
Taking input from a March 30 public meeting held at the Kenwood Firehouse, planning staff recommended adding a five-acre parcel to the Glen Ellen/Agua Caliente Community Separator. But by far the largest recommended addition would be most of the undeveloped lands of the Sonoma Developmental Center. Even though the property is state owned, the county has an existing Public Facility zoning overlay.
Questions of possibly adding more property between Kenwood and Glen Ellen were to be further studied and resolved at a June 30 follow-up meeting.
The community separator measure is expected to be sent to the Board of Supervisors on July 19, with a second look on Aug. 2, if necessary.
The staff report and interactive maps are all available online at www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/community_separators/index.htm.