Abstract: Choose the No Restaurant Alternative and Do Not Waive the Residential Component
In this comment, I will
-Request an EIR alternative analysis by independent consulting firm Fodor and Associates. This is a reasonable request, to satisfy demonstrable objective questions raised by the public concerning the EIR for this Project.
-Note that in EIR project alternatives, a No Restaurant alternative is included but waiving the residential component is not presented as an alternative, even though the nature of having 50% residential use would qualitatively change the nature of the environmental impacts so that at least, this should be considered “an alternative.”
-Request the Planning Commission not waive the residential component, as sufficient reason and evidence has not been cited as to why.
-Request the Planning Commission choose the No Restaurant alternative.
-Note that both the residential component and the No Restaurant alternative are valid Planning Commission possible choices, that rest on solid procedural ground, and are allowed by the process in place.
-Note that Project Objectives are not guaranteed in their entirety.
-Note that aspects of the Project can be found to be inconsistent with the General Plan, but that such evidence is not cited by staff. And suggest that there may be a pattern of partial citation of evidence, i.e. bias, by the EIR consultant and staff, weighted to Project support. In this pattern of partial evidence presentation, the weasel words “significant” and “insignificant” are used strategically so as to deaden and disarm public comments and feedback.
-In support of my assertion that this EIR process is biased, no meaningful “areas of controversy” summation was made concerning the scope of community concern with for this project. The consultant makes no summary, and simply refers to certain chapters, in the same robotic monotone that is used to reduce all public comment to “less than significant” and “invalid.” It is well known locally what the areas of controversy are, why cannot a city-hired consultant make an honest recap of the issues?
-Request the Planning Commission dig in, to find and acknowledge merit in all the public comment against the EIR of this project. All the comment has to have some, wee bit of a basis, rather than as staff presents, not be valid at all. The studied opinions of Planning Commissioners are all the public has left for representation, to decipher 1000s of pages of technical material, that really boils down to what ways this project should be mitigated to fit the environment of the small-town character of Sonoma.
Independently Chosen Alternative Analysis Requested
Given that all Project Objectives are seen by staff as valid, and that seemingly all Project objections raised by the public have been deemed invalid by the EIR consultant, and that the council majority and city staff were Measure B opponents, and that such opposition constituted tacit support of this hotel project on West Napa Street, and that any mention of General Plan principles or any other points, that would go against the Project are granted no validity of significance in the EIR, it is reasonable to conclude that the process as a whole is imbalanced and heavily biased in favor of the developer, Kenwood Investments.
It is therefore reasonable and proper to ask for an alternative analysis, from a body of consultants who share a different set of primary assumptions than the lead agency. One such recommended consultant is:
Fodor and Associates, http://www.fodorandassociates.com/ Eben Fodor is qualified, eligible, and willing to review this EIR.
Fodor and Associates
394 East 32nd Avenue • Eugene, OR 97405
phone: 541/345-8246 [email protected]
It is likely that most EIR consulting firms are analogous to Wall Street auditing firms. No one will get any work if they turn up trouble by challenging business as usual, (BAU). This is how BAU becomes corrupt, through an implicit insiderism. If the Planning Commission were to recommend an alternative analysis, or a peer review, it will be important, in the name of balance, fairness, and actual alternative analysis, that a consultant be chosen who has an alternate frame of reference, who is independent of the usual circuit, and/or that the public be able to help choose the consultant. Eben Fodor is such a consultant. It would be good to get an analysis by such a consultant on record; the public would then be able to measure the difference in assumptions with the city-chosen consultant firm.
Don’t Waive Residential Component (if this fits better with the use permit hearing, please use for that as well)
The SVCAC, in its hearing on the Project, made a provision for the Planning Commission to give close consideration as to whether or not to waive the residential component. Presumably the residential component exists first, as a policy to be implemented, not avoided.
Exhibit A: David Eichar’s breakdown (in italics below) on why keeping the residential component better meets Sonoma’s housing needs, and is consistent with the city’s KMA consultant nexus study. The nexus? The hotel will generate a need for affordable housing that must be met in some fashion by the city.
Please refer to the City Council packet for the March 20th City Council meeting to view the KMA consultant nexus studies on affordable housing.
An impact fee is not a fee to be paid in-lieu of providing housing. (The only in-lieu fee in the nexus studies is for residential development with 4 or fewer residences.) There was no recommendation, nor mention of, the residential component requirement for commercial development. Though, the city council could decide to implement one in the future, the city council did not give any indication that this is a path they wished to take.
KMA, in the nexus study says that it takes $94.80 per square foot of hotel space to make up for the “affordability gap” for the employees of a hotel. (And KMA admits this number is conservative and would be higher if indirect and induced employees were included in the calculation, (p. 222 of .pdf but has page number 218 at the bottom of the page) However, the impact fee the city council supports is only $9 per square foot. So, Kenwood Investments would be paying around 9.5% of the amount needed to make up the affordability gap.
Given the affordability gap for moderate income for a 2 bedroom 1050 square feet townhouse (p. 224 of pdf), the city would receive enough money to subsidize 3.25 affordable townhouses. If you take half the 67,478 square feet for housing instead, you can get 32 two bedroom townhouses. With a 20% inclusionary requirement, you get 6 units (6.4 rounded down).
And with the sale of the residential units, the city could still get about the same impact fee dollars as with just the hotel. The recommended impact fee for for-sale residential housing is $8 to $12 per square foot. The city council did not choose an amount, but if it chose near the low end, say $9 per square foot, the same as for hotels, Kenwood Investments would pay the same impact fee as for the hotel only.
Two of the options for the West Napa Street hotel:
• hotel only, the impact fees are enough to pay the affordability gap for 3.25 affordable townhouses.
• half hotel, half for-sale townhouses, you get 6 affordable townhouses, affordability gap money for 3.25 townhouses
You get almost 3 times more affordable housing with inclusion of for-sale residential component and inclusionary housing (9.25) than you do with the impact fee alone (3.25).
Therefore, waiving the residential component could cost the city 6 affordable homes and not meet the city’s housing needs as generated by the hotel project, and as elucidated by the KMA nexus study consultant.
Kenwood Investments claims they need to waive the residential component for economic reasons, for negative economic impact on the Project. Where is this statement explained, quantified, and any substantial evidence shown to prove it? This is just an aspiration, not a demonstrated necessity. The EIR has not provided an adequate answer to justify waiving the residential component.
As shown below, Project Objectives, which are part of the Draft EIR, show no inherent reason or nexus as to why the residential component should be waived, other than that the developer simply aspires to and wants a 62-room hotel (and 80-seat restaurant). All other Project Objectives can easily be satisfied with a hotel half the size, should 50% of the property be used for housing, as would be stipulated by the residential component.
The covert economic reason to waive the residential component is that the Project will not be worth as much for investors on potential resale if the Project is half the size. This is a covert, subjective assumption, not backed up by any quantitative analysis nor is this a specifically stated Project Objective. The Planning Commission is not obligated to buy into this aspiration so as to waive the residential component, so as to guarantee the investor group more money. This has nothing to do with the EIR, yet these Project Objectives are woven in to the EIR’s foundation as if everyone is supposed to just tacitly buy the assumptions without question. If somebody wants something for Christmas, that does not mean they automatically get it. In fact, investors in a Project like this can be shown to already have enough money for one lifetime. They don’t need more by any stretch of the imagination. There is no demonstrated necessity other than that Kenwood Investments want it.
Furthermore, the lack of any detailed plans or drawings to include the residential component shows that Kenwood Investments has not made a good faith effort to demonstrate why waiving the residential component is necessary, and has not taken this city policy seriously, particularly when city policy itself sees more housing as necessary, and that by waiving the residential component, the city will and up with six less affordable homes overall.
Residential Component is required, not to be avoided
Furthermore again, the residential component exists as required city planning policy; it exists for a reason: that employees of commercial projects have a place to live, to satisfy mixed-use planning priorities, and because Sonoma has limited land upon which to build housing. Should the residential component not be waived, a certain number of housing units would have to be built, 20% of which would have to be affordable. This affordable housing inclusion will hopefully house some Project employees. This is the intent.
No study or body of evidence is cited to show that any, as yet to be defined impact fees, will be adequate to actually build affordable housing. Such fees would have to be very high to result in actual affordable housing being built. Thus, taking away a guarantee of residential component-built housing, for an unsubstantiated promise of future housing to be built elsewhere, by an unknown entity, for an unknown cost, at an unknown location, is more of a hope and deferral than a sound housing policy decision. This line of reasoning is backed up by David Eichar’s Exhibit A above.
That the Project site is not a housing opportunity site is a red herring. The residential component of city commercial development can reasonably be assumed to exist because it should be implemented, to contribute to the overall urban vibrant quality of downtown, not so that it can be waived. If the creation of a vibrant downtown economy is part of the General Plan, cited by staff, to justify the restaurant, and waiving the residential component, doesn’t the city then also need people to live downtown who will vibrantly open their wallets and buy all the services offered? Isn’t this why the residential component even exists?
Why are there no plans or options for the residential component?
It is reasonable to ask, if the residential component is a known city policy for commercial developments, why did the developer draw no plans to include it? It is not the Planning Commission’s fault that the developer is unprepared to meet city housing policy, and that the developer has apparently staked all hopes on drawing a get out of jail free card, with no guarantee of pulling that from the deck.
In fact, the developer seems to have assumed the residential component will be waived because no Project drawings have been made that includes this required feature of such a commercial development. How can the Planning Commission adequately consider waiving the residential component if this valid alternative has not even been presented to show what it would be?
This seems to indicate that there is a some kind of either fix in ahead of time, or a great gamble is being made, otherwise a full set of options would have been drawn up.
Adhere to the General Plan
In support of not waiving the residential component, the General Plan states that, the purpose of the Commercial designation is to “… provide areas for retail, hotel, service, medical, and office development, in association with apartments and mixed-use developments and necessary public improvements.” Given that there is not that much space downtown, a project that combines hotel use with residential is one that meets multiple city planning objectives at one time. Multiple objective projects are accepted as better than single objective ones because more public policy goals can be met at once.
For the Planning Commission to waive the residential component would amount to peer pressure from staff and developer, to satisfy non-compelling, unquantified, and inadequately justified evidence of developer economic necessity, versus clear city needs for housing.
No Restaurant Project Alternative Not Adequately Presented
Project alternatives should be presented in as thorough a way as in the rest of the EIR. How can the Planning Commission make a solid decision on alternatives without an in-depth, meaningful analysis equivalent to the rest of the EIR?
The No Restaurant alternative is a valid alternative listed by the lead agency in this CEQA EIR process. “The range of feasible alternatives shall be selected and discussed in a manner to foster meaningful public participation and informed decision making.” CEQA Guidelines 15126.6.(f), see verbatim CEQA Guidelines below, at the end of this comment.
Mine, and others comments constitute “meaningful public participation”, about the valid Project alternatives such as the No Restaurant alternative.
DEIR listed Project Alternatives give credence to possible Planning Commission decisions to vote to choose one of these project alternatives as reasonable, feasible and preferable. The Planning Commission can bring other criteria to bear here, such as expertise in the full range of General Plan goals, city council goals, Development Code provisions, awareness of public opinion, as well as history of the outcomes and exceptions from previous commercial projects. The No Restaurant alternative would not have been presented if it was not in some way fundamentally “reasonable” or “feasible”.
Meaningful Public Participation
Perhaps more germane to the use permit hearing, this fits public opinion as per the Measure B vote, and the close SVCAC 4 to 3 vote to approve the project. These barometers of public opinion represent objective measures of “meaningful public participation”, which is to say essentially half of the voting public, as shown by precinct voting maps, does not want this project, period. That is a substantial, meaningful measure of public opinion. The SVCAC came close to not approving the Project. Had one SVCAC committee member not been absent, the SVCAC Project vote might very well have been deadlocked. This shows the Planning Commission, and the city, where the public actually stands, through the recent vote of a Valley representive body.
SVCAC committee members Tom Martin, Ditty Vella and Helene Silver also found the EIR to be lacking in their reviews. This adds up to that maybe city staff is presenting only a partial picture designed to have the project pass, and not presenting anything that would contraindicate those goals.
I think at this point we would all be deluding ourselves to not think that politics and preferences have not intruded onto this hotel approval process. The charade that the EIR is simply about facts that all must agree upon, because staff and the consultant say that they conform to the Development Code and General Plan, is frankly, a sophisticated level of spin that is simply not true. This is akin to the military saying “we’re just following orders.” The interpretation and selective use of information is then conflated as being unbiased and objective. However, I believe my comments here open the door to seeing this process is one where bias has been exercised by staff and consultant.
The city council also has a goal to balance tourism and residential concerns, not to allow them to become more out of balance, as would be the effect a major, 62-room, luxury 5 Star hotel project, along with an 80-seat restaurant right downtown. Given that this council goal has yet to be realized, but has been a legitimate and salient community goal for years, speaks to giving the Planning Commission leeway to step in and realize a council goal for the council: approving this project with the residential component included, and mandating the No Restaurant alternative, would mitigate the effects of tourism in the downtown area while still providing some benefits, as stated by Project Objectives and the General Plan.
Measure B, the 4 to 3 SVCAC vote, and all the public comment questioning the adequacy of this Project’s EIR, shows that there is more than one set of aspirations and objective views at stake.
Sonoma is an attractive tourist destination because of its authentic small-town character. By intensifying the impacts of more tourists on the downtown environment, the incremental effect will be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, through the very process of trying to get more golden eggs.
Take home point: A much smaller hotel project, that includes the residential component and the No Restaurant alternative would be an appropriate way to finesse both Project and public objectives.
Project Objectives, as related to Project Alternatives (as noted in the DEIR)
“The following chapter is intended to inform the public and decision makers of the feasible alternatives that would avoid or substantially lessen any significant effects of the Project.
“There is no ironclad rule governing the nature or scope of the alternatives to be discussed [in an EIR] other than the rule of reason” (CEQA Guidelines Section 15126.6(a)). Under the rule of reason, an EIR need discuss only those alternatives necessary to permit a reasoned choice (CEQA Guidelines Section 15126.6(f)). As mentioned above, an EIR need only contain a “range of reasonable alternatives to the project” which would “feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project but would avoid or substantially lessen any of the significant [impacts] of the project” (CEQA Guidelines Section 15126.6(a)).
“Napa Street West hotel Project basic objectives include:
§ Construct a 62-room hotel, restaurant, and spa on an infill site in downtown Sonoma, CA.
§ Provide full- and part-time local employment opportunities to fill positions expected to operate the hotel and restaurant.
§ Stimulate local economy through Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), retail sales, and job creation.
§ Provide aesthetically pleasing architecture to complement the existing character of Sonoma.
§ Promote economic vitality for the City through new capital investment on what is currently an under- utilized site.
§ Promote sustainability by designing and constructing a hotel that meets LEED Certification standards.
Project Objectives as Fundamentally Subjective
First it should be noted that Project Objectives are not EIR-type facts, nor quantifiable in any way, yet they rest as the foundation of the whole Project. A questioning of project objectives therefore, cannot be reduced to an objective discourse, and so, calling Project Objectives into question, by the public and the Planning Commission necessarily becomes a matter of values, even though the EIR is specifically about quantifiable environmental impacts.
Project Objectives are not facts, nor quantifiable in any way, yet they become quantified through the EIR process. Let us then not confuse and conflate the difference between Project Objectives, and the EIR impacts of those objectives.
Therefore, a fundamentally subjective aspirational premise (project objectives) lies as the core reason for all the objective EIR studies. Reason, would have it, that if the subjective Project Objectives are not congruent with actual city planning objectives, i.e. the General Plan and Development Code, then here are potential areas where the Planning Commission can find that the Project Objectives themselves do not fit. This is exactly where staff and consultant, in my opinion, have steered the project away from known public concerns, which are themselves based in the General Plan and Development Code, and stacked the deck in favor of the developer.
It is my assertion that an actual, balanced EIR analysis would look a lot different than what the public now sees as a fait accompli for Kenwood Investments.
A 62-room hotel with an 80-seat restaurant, with the residential component waived, does not meet existing city policy to include a residential component in commercial projects. Waiving the residential component will result in the city actually losing potential affordable housing, and therefore, the Project Objectives detract from city planning objectives, and therefore, waiving the residential component should not be allowed.
There is a clear value planning judgment at stake here: what is more valuable, needed residential development or stoking an already out of balance tourism economy? Where are the “facts” here? Well, there is a policy area here that calls to be finessed, not to be presented as a zero-sum game, “objective” slam dunk by the developer, staff and EIR consultant.
Furthermore, the Plaza needs a new 80-seat restaurant like a hole on the head. There are already enough high-end restaurants, and a new one will likely serve to put the others out of business, and dilute the money and benefit they are already giving. The No Restaurant alternative therefore, will help to keep existing Plaza businesses healthy, and not intensify the tourism the city has a goal to try and balance with residents’ desires to have a Plaza that meets residents needs as well.
Project Objective economic goals are illusory and unrealizable
The Project Objectives regarding job creation, TOT, multiplier effect etc. are really a statement of trickle-down economics, which while the conservative wealthy love to keep saying how great the idea is, to the man on the street, trickle down is a pack of lies, and never comes true. Nothing trickles down. That’s why we have the 1%, of whom the investors clearly are. Why do we have the greatest inequality about ever in the history of mankind right now, and Sonoma County is one the top ten most unaffordable places to live if trickle down works? All of a sudden, the wealthy are going to start to share? I don’t think so. The investors here are not primarily out to meet public goals but to make a killing in their investments. If they had public goals in mind, why are they trying to avoid the residential component? Why don’t they build a hostel to serve area median income people instead of luxury rich guys who don’t need any help?
The economic benefits argument is balderdash, and is not a valid objective if we can see it plain does not work, and only benefits people who are already rich.
Project Objectives are Not Guaranteed
The CEQA object here is to be reasonable, and to outline alternatives that would feasibly attain most of the basic objectives for a project. Surely it can’t be a foregone conclusion that all project objectives would be guaranteed ahead of time. Why even have Planning Commission review and public comment in that case?
City Staff Does Not Support the No Restaurant Alternative
Draft Resolution certifying EIR and Use Permit, 11/3/16
FINDINGS RELATED TO ALTERNATIVES FOR HOTEL PROJECT SONOMA ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT REPORT
State Clearinghouse Number: 2015062041
“No Restaurant Alternative
Under the No Restaurant Alternative, the Project components would remain the same as described in Chapter 3, Project Description; however, the 80-seat restaurant would no longer be constructed. Under this alternative, the square footage, location, number of hotel rooms, and general layout of the Project would remain similar as proposed by the Project. This alternative assumes that the use of the restaurant space would likely be utilized for hotel operations or additional lobby space.
The City finds that this alternative is less desirable than the proposed Project and rejects this alternative.
“Facts in Support of Finding:
“This alternative would not meet the project objectives related to the operation of a restaurant on site. As a result, the project would not result in increased sales tax, or provide full and part time local employment opportunities to operate the restaurant. In addition, the restaurant component constitutes a ground floor retail use that is supported in the City of Sonoma General Plan as contributing to the vitality of the downtown. Therefore, the removal of the restaurant use would diminish project consistency with the General Plan.
Critique of Staff Recommendation on No Restaurant Alternative
I challenge staff criteria given for why the No Restaurant alternative is less desirable, and encourage the Planning Commission to adopt the No Restaurant alternative.
Staff says that the No Restaurant alternative is inconsistent with Project Objectives. Why? The reason is that Project Objectives, of having a restaurant, increasing sales tax and increasing employment will not be satisfied. This amounts to saying that “Project Objectives are valid because they are Project Objectives.” This is not a “fact in support of the findings”, it is a tautology, saying the same thing twice to prove point. Furthermore, as pointed out, Project Objectives are themselves, of a fundamentally subjective nature. Staff has given a facile, and weak rationale here.
In the case of the No Restaurant alternative, what is likely is that the question of feasibility hinges on an unstated Project Objective: potential large investor returns from the Project. If this is an actual Project Objective, it should be explicitly stated and not remain tacitly assumed. The Planning Commission should not be obliged to conform to an unstated Project aspiration, or to conform to a weak and illogical staff rationale.
Furthermore, an analysis of the restaurant’s impacts on other Plaza restaurants has not been given. A tacit assumption is made that more restaurants is better, and will produce more money for the city and increase downtown economic vitality. A peer review by Fodor and Associates, who question that growth is always beneficial, might show that more restaurants is not better, and that an escalation of restaurant growth may just as well diminish business for existing restaurant players. A new 80-seat restaurant risks what is known as a “J-curve” crash, too many actors trying to capture the same amount of resources. This more, more, more, as good world view leads to a tragedy of the commons. This is well known and scientifically demonstrable.
What we have here then is a basic philosophical difference concerning growth and conservation, that then gets worked into staff and consultant EIR recommendation as “fact” when, in fact, this growth bias is shot through to the heart with assumptions that are not factual, are contestable on objective grounds, and/or that twist information to only conform to the growth-as-good view. This is hardly the objective, knowledgeable, mere application of planning code, non-values approach advocated by those who want to use this process to advocate the interests of more luxury economy in the city, and area of the county that is already suffering from a tragedy of the commons for affordable housing and affordable living.
A better recommendation would be to take the No Restaurant alternative, and have the city shoot for an “S-curve” carrying capacity of Plaza restaurants and economic vitality. This would be sustainable, and fit the scale and small town character of Sonoma, which is also a General Plan goal.
And so while I am not a planner on par with yourselves or David Goodison, I hope I have at least demonstrated here, that there is more than one way to look at these Project Objectives and city planning objectives, and it sure seems to me that staff is spinning this EIR to all fall to the benefit of the developer, and does not take into account the many concerns the community has with this project. And, staff does not make an effort to use this EIR process, and knowledge of the General Plan, to construct any arguments that would benefit the aspirations, and city planning objectives contained within the General Plan, of those who oppose this project and would rather see a carrying capacity-type planning approach. Therefore, I see staff’s and consultant’s presentation as fundamentally biased to the developer, and therefore, an alternative analysis/ peer review of the EIR should be done by Fodor and Associates, so as to elicit all the points that have been minimized or ignored.
On What Objective Basis can the No Restaurant Alternative be Considered?
The CEQA, Planning Commission process here does not outline how the No Restaurant alternative can objectively be determined to be more or less desirable, especially if the rationale given by staff is a tautology, i.e. says nothing. Thus, this decision on the No Restaurant alternative is a value judgement the Planning Commission can make. This process of how to decide on the No Restaurant alternative does not meet any threshold of sufficient or substantial evidence in approving the Project as a whole.
Staff also says the No Restaurant alternative is inconsistent with the General Plan, because it will take away ground floor retail that would contribute to the vitality of downtown. Well, you can’t take away something that is not there yet. Vitality is a very subjective notion here; the case can be made that downtown is too vital, it is a J-curve crash waiting to happen, and needs to be toned down. In any event, if subjective proofs are allowed as a “fact in support of finding”, why can’t public or Planning Commission subjective value judgments be admitted to this EIR process as well?
For General Plan consistency, the Plaza already has plenty of restaurants, a new 80-seat restaurant is by no means a current necessity. We’re talking, for an 80-seat restaurant, 20 tables at four sets per table. This would create glut of restaurants and maybe even put other restaurants out of business, certainly not a General Plan objective. The city is also not hurting for money or additional tax sources, having just passed a tax measure, and thus, the lack of sales tax is not really a good reason for staff to reject a No Restaurant alternative. Overall, the short treatment given to the No Restaurant alternative by staff shows a biased and incomplete entertaining of the whole impacts on the Plaza and long-term city planning environment.
Fostering more high-end retail can also been as inconsistent with the General Plan because that causes more inflation, and makes it less likely that those who live and work here can afford to shop here, also a General Plan goal. This plays back into the consultant’s failure to make an adequate summary of the public’s concerns and issues with this project.
The main Project Objective appears to be a 62-room hotel with an 80-seat restaurant. The other objectives are ancillary and would equally apply to a 26-room, or a 6-room hotel, or a project with no restaurant. An alternate project would still meet local employment and economic vitality objectives, be a capital investment, increase TOT, be aesthetic, and it could still be energy efficient and LEED certified. A smaller hotel is certainly economically viable, as demonstrated by the Ledson and Marino hotels on the Plaza.
As per project employment objectives, there is no guarantee that potential project employees will earn a living wage. How will a living wage be defined for Sonoma? All evidence of hotel worker wages to date are that the scale is not adequate to afford Sonoma property, rents, food, goods and services. A promise of union labor does not mean that there will be union labor. Even if there was union labor, what wage scale are we talking about? $15 an hour? To be able to afford a market rate house in Sonoma of $600,000, how much would a hotel worker have to make?
It is equally possible to look upon the main Project Objective as constituting a negative cost. These perceived costs could be measured, vetted and explained by an alternative analysis and/or peer review; or by the Planning Commission itself. Otherwise what we see is a slam dunk engineered to pass against the will of half the public.
If ever there was a situation that called for a compromise solution, this is it. To pursue a zero-sum winner-take-all approach effectively caves to pressure from wealthy investors, and disenfranchises the public. Therefore, my recommendation, do not waive the residential component, and take the No Restaurant alternative.
Project Objectives are Guaranteed?
The city is not beholden to satisfy the developer’s investors, or to waive the residential component. There is no good reason why not to include the residential component, other than that the developer simply does not want to. If there is a will, a way can be found to build any project. Why is there a residential component in the first place if it was not expected to be satisfied, housing opportunity site or not? The reason the residential component does not appear to fit is that the hotel proposed is too large for the lot. Well, draw up a smaller hotel so that a residential component will fit. Why was there not a Project drawing that showed an inclusion of a residential component? This puts undo pressure on the Planning Commission, as it seems like a foregone conclusion to grant a waiver, as it would inconvenience the developer, to have to produce additional drawings, and to give up an unstated project objective.
This lack of preparation, to include full drawings of a residential component, and plans for no restaurant, appears to be a psychological ploy to pressure the Planning Commission to cave to developer’s desires. The developer’s lack of preparation in this regard however, does not signify the Planning Commission must accede to a housing waiver, or to including the restaurant.
Furthermore, why would anyone assume that a developer has essentially a guarantee of having all their project objectives met? Why would the public even bother to comment then? Indeed, a draft EIR resolution has already been composed that assumes the Planning Commission will not choose the No Restaurant alternative, even before the Planning Commission has deliberated on the matter. What about meaningful public participation, including that of the Planning Commission? This sure seems to me, to have elements of an orchestrated power play to deliver 100% of the project objectives.
A project that may exist for many decades in the core area of Sonoma, the Plaza, that will define Sonoma’s identity, deserves to not only reflect developer aspirations, but also public aspirations as well. And it is clear that public aspirations, as they are reflected in the General Plan, have been assiduously been minimized by staff.
Consistency with General Plan
Another aspect of project alternative feasibility is consistency with the General Plan, CEQA Guidelines 15126.6 (f), (1). The General Plan says that people who work here should be able to live and shop here. More elite, high-end development is exactly what is changing city demographics so that the workforce can no longer afford to live or shop here. There is a current city council goal to address this problem, and find a nexus with residents and tourism. Balancing tourism and resident’s values, is a core city goal and challenge. This luxury hotel represents tourism on steroids. The General Plan has sustainable, triple bottom line aspirations, which means that high-end multiplier economic effects are not the only General Plan value to be consistent with. Why then are there no counter points provided by staff, anywhere, in any of the EIR, to show any awareness of public sentiment, that would show awareness of having responded to meaningful public participation to limit J-curve assumptions and reach an S-curve of carrying capacity for tourism?
The Planning Commission can bring to bear its knowledge of the General Plan and point out where staff has left out city planning goals that may conflict with the Project. The Planning Commission is the last stop where educated citizen volunteers can make a case to mitigate this project, to come in at a scale and intensity appropriate for the community. I ask the Planning Commission to look at this project with a critical eye and not buy staff’s recommendations hook, line and sinker.
As presented in the EIR, exactly what is consistent with the General Plan seems to be more of a value judgement than a matter of objective quantification anyway. Everyone can find what they want to hear in the General Plan; it is an all-purpose document. As said William Blake, “both read the Bible (General Plan) day and night, where thou readest black and I readest white.”
In spite of the process in place deck being stacked in favor of this Project, choosing the No Restaurant alternative, and not waiving the residential component, are both solid EIR and use permit procedural grounds the Planning Commission could use to reduce the size of the project. It is a valid and justifiable potential choice of the Planning Commission to not waive the residential component and to choose the No Restaurant alternative.
Including the residential component, and choosing the No Restaurant alternative would result in 50% of the land being devoted to housing, 20% of which would be affordable. This housing would be built and not deferred. This would mean more affordable and market rate housing built than otherwise. Including the residential component, and choosing the No Restaurant alternative would result in a hotel approximately half the size as proposed; this is still feasible, and consistent with the bulk of Project Objectives, and still consistent with the General Plan, plus satisfies public opinion and city council policy to not overwhelm the downtown area with tourism, and the General Plan goal of keeping the small-town character and scale of downtown Sonoma.
An alternate analysis and peer review by the independent consulting firm Fodor and Associates, or similar, is a request aimed at satisfying the public review of reasonable and feasible Project alternatives, and to satisfy meaningful public participation and representation.
15126.6 Consideration and Discussion of Alternatives to the Proposed Project.
(a) Alternatives to the Proposed Project. An EIR shall describe a range of reasonable alternatives to the project, or to the location of the project, which would feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project but would avoid or substantially lessen any of the significant effects of the project, and evaluate the comparative merits of the alternatives.
(f) Rule of reason. The range of alternatives required in an EIR is governed by a “rule of reason” that requires the EIR to set forth only those alternatives necessary to permit a reasoned choice. The alternatives shall be limited to ones that would avoid or substantially lessen any of the significant effects of the project. Of those alternatives, the EIR need examine in detail only the ones that the lead agency determines could feasibly attain most of the basic objectives of the project. The range of feasible alternatives shall be selected and discussed in a manner to foster meaningful public participation and informed decision making.
(1) Feasibility. Among the factors that may be taken into account when addressing the feasibility of alternatives are site suitability, economic viability, availability of infrastructure, general plan consistency, other plans or regulatory limitations, jurisdictional boundaries (projects with a regionally significant impact should consider the regional context), and whether the proponent can reasonably acquire, control or otherwise have access to the alternative site (or the site is already owned by the proponent). No one of these factors establishes a fixed limit on the scope of reasonable alternatives. (Citizens of Goleta Valley v. Board of Supervisors (1990) 52 Cal.3d 553; see Save Our Residential Environment v. City of West Hollywood (1992) 9 Cal.App.4th 1745, 1753, fn. 1).