There have been some recent controversies regarding development in Sonoma, e.g. a ballot measure to limit the size of new hotels, bids to limit the overall number of wine-tasting rooms in the Plaza area, and complaints about the flood of private vacation rentals in town.
These kinds of issues are exactly what our Planning Commission addresses, hence its importance to the community.
But even though most residents of Sonoma know that there is a Planning Commission as part of the city government, how many really know who they are and what they do? So – we’re going to take you on a tour of the people and the functions of our Planning Commission.
The formal description of the job is that “the Planning Commission prepares, revises and implements the comprehensive long-term General Plan for the physical development of the City and surrounding areas. It conducts hearings and makes decisions and/or recommendations on a variety of land use applications”.
But Mayor Tom Rouse explained more informally some of the traits that the members should have: they must be able to decipher a planned proposal and its implications for the community, and they must have interest, enthusiasm and knowledge (and free time) to pour into this wholly volunteer job.
Mayor Rouse emphasized that a professional background in architecture, engineering or construction would be a great asset, but is not required. The greatest asset is a genuine long-time interest in the future building process in Sonoma. The “long-time” is crucial, because the city would be ill-served by someone who got on the Planning Commission in order to further their own development plans.
Since the commissioners are appointed by the City Council, not elected, the only way for a resident to judge their work and their attitudes about the Planning process is to attend the Commission meetings at on the second Thursday of each month at the Community Meeting Room, 177 First Street West.
The Commission is comprised of seven members, six of which must be residents of the City. The appointment process begins with a show of interest by the candidate when he or she fills out an application at City Hall. Any resident is welcome to do this.
If they seem to be a reasonable applicant at first reading by the City Council, two Council members, including the mayor that year, interview them to see if they are sincere, and a good fit.
Once chosen, there is a two-year initial term, and an option for four more years, then two more if they are still willing. Remember, this is a volunteer position, with no monetary compensation, and the inconvenience of an annual disclosure statement of all their financial holdings to prevent conflicts of interest.
The panel’s current members, all men, have backgrounds in diverse professions. The Chair, Chip Roberson, has an M.A. in Computer Science, and runs a social media company. As a member since 2009, he considers himself a “pragmatist and a centrist” who wants to “respect and protect” the interests of all Sonoma residents far into the future.
Gary Edwards owns Sage Cheese Co., and has taken volunteer high school groups to help with community building projects in Nicaragua.
Mark Heneveld is the representative for the Sonoma communities outside the City limits. Now semi-retired from a real estate career, his philosophy for future development is that it must be “planned, non-biased, and thought-out growth”. He also believes, rightly, that the Commission “has no mandate to grant planning exceptions just to help an owner make money”.
Bill Willers is a partner in an architecture firm that has been involved since 1990 in dozens of mostly residential projects in Sonoma; James Cribb is the owner of Sonoma Dog Camp, a daycare for pets;
Robert Felder is a retired civil engineer; and Matt Howarth is a partner in a private real estate investment firm.
These are the Planning Commission members you will have to communicate with if you have any building project in mind, from a fence to a factory. They are there to help you comply with the rules in place to keep Sonoma a welcoming home for residents, a fair and friendly place for business, and a picturesque destination for tourists.
What’s the plan?
All building applications are subject to use permit review by the Planning Commission and possible appeal to the City Council. This process normally includes the following steps:
1) Study Session. For larger projects or for small projects that may be subject to controversy, a preliminary study session is normally held by the Planning Commission in order to provide an early opportunity for public notice and feedback. Planning staff will prepare an initial studying order to identify the areas of potential environmental impact that will require detailed study, such as cultural resources and traffic.
2) Environmental Review. Once an application is filed, staff makes a preliminary determination as to level of environmental review that will be required. This determination is subject to the review and approval of the Planning Commission at a public hearing. For larger projects that involve potential environmental impacts, an environmental impact report (EIR) may be required. If an EIR is required, the draft EIR and the final EIR are circulated for public comment and are reviewed by the Planning Commission in public hearing.
3) Review by the Sonoma valley Citizens Advisory Committee. If a project is subject to a level of environmental review that calls for either an EIR or negative declaration, it will be referred to the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission for comment. Review by the SVCAC takes place in a public hearing.
4) Use Permit Review. Once the environmental review is complete and certified, the Planning Commission will review the application for use permit approval of the project in a public hearing.
5) Architectural Review. If the project is approved in some form, it would then be subject to architectural review, which is conducted by the Design Review Commission in a public meeting.
6) City Council Review. Decisions of the Planning Commission and the Design Review Commission are subject to appeal to the City Council. If an appeal occurs, it is heard by the City Council in a public meeting.