A number of items on the Planning Commission agenda this evening had to do with hillside private homes proposed by Caymus Capital/ First Street East (FSE) leader Ed Routhier and key FSE investor Bill Jasper. The main issues had to do with impacts and mitigations to the Schocken Hill hillside: trees, view-scape, grading, pad size limits, drainage, and how these fit with the city’s hillside ordinance. These are all legitimate issues to explore as part of vetting local development projects.
Quite a bit of acrimony has built up around the First Street East development cohort, of which Routhier and Jasper are core actors. The neighbors have been skeptical of the FSE project from the start, and have started a group called Protect Sonoma. FSE began to push back, and made, in my opinion, a number of strategic errors, later to be smoothed over by hiring benign-appearing public relations people. The following observations amount to what things look like to me, my opinion as a public observer.
FSE surrogates went after Mayor Rachel Hundley and council member Amy Harrington for their choice of Lynda Corrado for Planning Commission commissioner. FSE thought Corrado was biased against them. FSE actively bullied and accused other Planning commissioners (Willers and Bohar) of being biased. They played hard ball. They did not make friends in the city, or with the public.
Hundley’s choice to not renew Ron Wellander’s term was used as fodder for conspiracy theories that amounted to no more than Hundley exercising her then current right to shape the future of the Planning Commission. Hundley and Harrington were then subjected to a freedom of information request for all their emails by FSE surrogate Joe Aaron.
Various lawsuits and other e-mail requests were threatened and maybe brought, against the city and other related commissioners. Harrington and Hundley were photographed having lunch with a Design Review commissioner, and accused of collusion. The city was accused of not having a good process to vet development projects, but what really happened was too much acrimony and hard ball was injected by FSE. FSE overplayed their hand. As a result, bad feelings were sown, and it is likely there will be no more purely informational planning sessions.
In a bit of disarray, acrimony, and taking sides as per views on development and the proper role of tourism, the council found itself in a position of being pressured to reformulate the way city commissioners are chosen. That process is still shaking out, meanwhile commissions languish with many seats left unfilled.
This is the backdrop for how, in my opinion, FSE contributed to blowing up the Planning Commission and the commission selection process. All these public things are connected. The core FSE actors now have hillside homes proposed, so it is reasonable enough that baggage from all the above would not just be set aside.
City hillside ordinance
The city has a hillside ordinance to protect against many of the known negative impacts of hillside development, which include protecting the view-scape, preserving tress and ecosystems, managing drainage, setting pad-size limits, and controlling the amount of grading, among other considerations.
These are legitimate municipal concerns. As such the Planning Commission and city staff saw fit to do an environmental review on the projects at stake. Not many hillside projects come to the Planning Commission.
Since all members of the public have not followed all the ins and outs of this process apropos of the Routhier/ Jasper proposed hillside homes in question, from the administrative lot line adjustments, to the de facto Brown Act violation late into a Planning Commission meeting, up to today, with the standard range of engaged public comments that challenge any staff report, an appeal of the Planning Commission decision(s) may be an option. Various understandings of the hillside ordinance appear unsettled. The public, applicants, PC commissioners, and staff, all have different takes on just what is at stake and how issues are, or are not being mitigated.
Frankly, this is standard procedure for any controversial project. The facts are disputed.
One issue I noticed that was not clearly addressed, was the view the public would have of these proposed hillside homes. The architect presented a number of slides in quick sequence, that were very hard to see and get a sense of the home’s visual impact on the city. Maps were superimposed and Google Earth outsize shapes confused the view. The granting of a use permit without a clearer vetting of public view-scape impacts, might be one basis for an appeal.
The basic view-scape issue is that people who build hillside homes want a view. They spend a lot of money and feel entitled to it. The public wants views of hillsides free of mansions. A balance has to be struck here. Thus, those opposed to these particular homes, and to hillside homes in general, have a right to operate within the process in place, until all issues are fully settled. If the process allows for appeals and challenges, then those opposed will take those opportunities. And, all these threshold steps of appeal have to be exhausted if there is to be any final lawsuit.
Back to the facts
As usual, the issues at stake were framed by some as a vetting of the “facts”, as if any such thing can be free of value judgments by the commissioners, applicants and public. In fact, this whole process is a dance and struggle to prevail on which facts actually become settled as policy. If we were all somehow only able to deal with “the facts”, then we would all agree and there would be no problems. Obviously, this is not the case, and so any appeal to the facts is actually an appeal to partisans to skew information one way or another. Welcome to Baseline Bias 101.
An undertone of class antagonism appears to be at stake. This manifests in one respect as a public relations struggle to mold community opinion. In my view, those who can afford hillside mansions, and to develop hotels, are not the members of any silent majority. That is an absurd proposition. These wealthy are unusual people, not ordinary people. They are the super-rich. They are the 1% who have all the money in an era of historic economic inequality. How can the 1% be a silent majority? No, they can’t be; that is a Nixonian public relations fantasy. This is the same type of thing the public now sees from Trump, an unapologetic, arrogant, 1% entitlement, that is now being forced down the throats of the 99%. No limits, no regulations, all disguised as somehow congruent with populism.
Given that class issues are at stake here in Sonoma and nationally, with the 1% running away with the game while Joe Sixpack suffers high inflation and unaffordable prices all the way around, it is not surprising that we see acrimony locally. Jasper and Routhier are very rich, but are humans after all, and if disrespected, they will push back. They, like other economic elites, don’t seem to get that they are not sympathetic figures, like “oh, I’m sorry getting your 9000-square foot compound is a hassle…” How much do yeoman farmers really identify with the plantation masters? Not that much.
In a public letter to the Planning Commission, Bill Jasper accused Protect Sonoma leader Sheila O’Neill as being vindictive, and of being from a small minority who stood against the will of the town’s silent majority. This is the same argument made by Steve Page about hotel limitation advocates, and indicative of the disdain certain wealthy people have for citizens concerned with sustainability. This after Jasper wrote a letter to O’Neill’s employers to complain and ask that she be fired, for her public activities. Vindictive eh? Is this not the pot calling the kettle black?
Stick to the issues
Chair Crib started the meeting by asking everyone to stick to the issues at stake and not open any of the personal/ class acrimony noted above. Fair enough. And so, when Ms. O’Neill began to reference Jasper’s letter to her employer, Crib cut her off quickly and chided her to stay on the agenda item. Later, when Sebastian Scholl, a well-spoken, and consistent Routhier/ Japser partisan, said that “the usual suspects of the anti-development community” had turned out, Crib was silent about this personal dig, and did not steer Scholl back to the agenda item. Scholl went on to state that this should not be about personalities (after he did so himself), and Crib remained silent.
How long have you lived here?
It is interesting how so many equate how long you have lived in Sonoma with degree of legitimacy of opinion. Everyone seems to fall prey to this, as if a new citizen’s vote is somehow less than that of an old citizen. Bill Jasper invoked local longevity again when he noted that Chad Moll, hillside drainage expert, had lived here his whole life, and therefore, he ought to be eminently qualified over any of us newcomers.
Commissioner Bohar explained that he could not support the Routhier house project because the issue of pad size was not settled. Planning Director Goodison explained that the pad square footage was a guideline, and not a hard rule, and it was up to the Planning Commission to discuss what to do. It became clear that pad size was not an issue for the other three commissioners, and that Bohar would be outvoted on that specific.
I continue to be impressed by commissioner McDonald, as a thoughtful, fair commissioner. As I have watched him over the years, he has displayed continuous improvement, and increased his ability to articulate the issues at stake.
A number of his comments were maybe unintentionally humorous, such as that it is “hard to say if anyone deserves such a large house…”, and that Bill Jasper’s existing hillside home is an “eyesore.”
Commissioner McDonald did a nice job to finesse his support of the architect’s design and hillside mitigations, with a strong appeal that covenants and restrictions be solidly put in place to protect all the hillside issues mentioned that are at stake. McDonald does not want to have the view-scape be protected only to have owners later cut down the trees, or to have owners park in the fire lanes as overflow parking, and not maintain the drainage, and the public then have no recourse. McDonald wants enforceable mitigation.
Planning Director Goodison explained that covenants and restrictions would not be a criminal, but a civil issue, and it remains unclear how much teeth hillside mitigations will ultimately have from the use permit level. How, McDonald asked, would view-scape protecting trees fare when the Fire Marshall sought to trim or cut them down? McDonald wants assurances prior to issuing a certificate of occupancy, that all hillside mitigations are covered and in place; he wants such conditions recorded in the covenants and restrictions, to apply to future owners as well. And, he wants such limitations to apply to all three hillside proposed projects. Hopefully McDonald’s concerns made the final cut
Thus, we return to the issue of limits, and of those actors capable of resisting and pushing the limits because of their wealth, and of a community concerned about character, scale, equity, and fairness to the majority.
Sek and Cribb
By the time the discussion moved to Commissioner Sek, and I divined that she would be supporting the projects, I knew there were the three voters to approve, even though Cribb had not yet spoken, as he earlier telegraphed that limiting the pad size was not an issue to him.
For the next edition of As Sonoma Turns.