Despite the aspirations of its General Plan, the policies and measures of its Development Code, its Planning Commission and its Planning Director, Sonoma’s development planning process is a mess. From homes too large, mansions on hilltops, ill-conceived commercial developments and impact analyses that defy common sense and experience, projects keep coming forward only to be overturned on appeal, withdrawn by applicants and condemned by neighbors.
It’s not simply a matter of unusual complexity, or of living in contentious times, though both of these are true. Sonoma seems unable to live by its own rules. Take, for example, the recent Planning Commission decision about hillside development planning guidelines, which limit the size of a building pad on a parcel to 5,000 square feet. This size guideline was created to reduce the potential impacts of large homes on Sonoma’s hillside backdrop. It’s a guideline, not a rule, but it was intended to provide a standard by which a proposal can be measured; if 5,500 square feet was proposed, that’s not that far from a reasonable standard, but multiple pads equaling 12,000 square feet?
In rendering its decision, and with the support of the Planning Director, the commission interpreted the guideline to mean a single building pad could not exceed 5,000 square feet, but would allow multiple 5,000 square foot building pads on one parcel. The absurdity of this interpretation negates the intention of the guideline entirely, and is an inexcusably poor planning decision. That Planning Director Goodison facilitated such a decision is equally inexcusable.
This same pattern repeats itself in other proposals– project applications that either ignore or dismiss the city’s own planning documents and recommendations. The proposal for the Hotel on Napa Street ignored the housing requirement; the proposal for the hotel on First Street East (now dropped from the plan) ignored the planning guidelines for that neighborhood; multiple lots get combined to change the scale of houses and proposals. Planning, it seems, has become irrelevant; developers are writing their own rules and hoping the public is too exhausted and the city too lazy to oppose them.
Land use and development in the City of Sonoma is regulated by law: the city’s planning documents. When those documents lose their objective meaning and become subject to capricious reinterpretation, chaos ensues. Good planning informs both the public and the developer with reasonable expectations — how large can things be built, what can be built where, and the special building considerations of each neighborhood . Absent confidence and reliance on its rules and regulations, the city’s planning process breaks down.
The symptoms of such a breakdown are before us: recurrent appeal hearings, public protests, threatened lawsuits, neighbors fighting neighbors, and growing uncertainty and confusion. What’s needed now is clarity, and confidence that the city is prepared to stand by its own plans and to enforce them. Planning Director Goodison needs to begin saying “no” more often when unsuitable applications are submitted; it’s unfair to both the applicants and the community to bring forth plans that will never be fulfilled or will be subject to endless conflict.
The city makes money from fees or taxes on some projects, but this consideration must never supercede the basis of sound planning. Our General Plan and Development Code have some wiggle-room, but stretching them beyond all reason simply invalidates our planning process altogether. It needs to stop.