The Altamira Family Apartments project by Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) was approved by the Planning Commission on a three to two vote on 11/9/17, with Cribb, Sek and McDonald voting yes, and Bohar and Coleman voting no. See my review of the hearing for context. Other past reviews of this project’s process, and can be found on this blog.
As expected, the Altamira Family Apartments project has been appealed. This essay is an initial point-by-point analysis of the appeal filed by one signatory, Lynne Fisk Watts. As the appeal process moves forward, the next stage of seeing the appellant’s substantive arguments will be when the appellant files any supporting texts and documentation with the city. This will likely be right before the city council appeal hearing, date to be determined.
Hopefully with the great need for affordable housing now pressing in the city and county, the city manager and council will see fit to fast track the appeal to early January. Affordable housing is the current city council’s top goals priority, as stated in its last goals retreat meeting. This appeal to the council is where the rubber meets the road. No council, actions should be taken that reduce the number of units or that increase the cost of the project
Initial analysis of the appeal
One, the project was not named and referred to properly, calling it the “20269 Affordable Housing Development.”
Two, the appeal was filed by Lynne Fisk Watts but the appeal immediately refers to a “we.” There is no group name as a signatory on the appeal, although a South Sonoma Group is added after Fisk Watts’ name on an attachment.
Three, the project is then referred to as “the county’s low income housing project”, when it is the city who is in control of and who is vetting the process through the city Planning Dept. and Planning Commission. The appeal is made to the Sonoma city council, not the county.
Four, the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA process that resulted in a mitigated negative declaration, or MND, is said to have not been rigorous enough, in one respect because of the timing of the studies, and thereby missing effects of “the tourist season” on the neighborhood around the project. The timing and location of particular studies is a frequent critique in CEQA appeals. In this case, however, given the stated objective of the city’s Tourism Improvement District, to maximize year-round and mid-week tourism, there is increasingly not a particular tourist season, but rather a year-round full court press of tourism that impacts the whole city and region, not just one neighborhood.
Five, an assertion is made about inadequate on-site parking, even though no specific findings were presented by Planning Commissioners or appellants to show the parking was inadequate for the adopted MND.
Six, the questioning of project parking then segues to a conflation of prior, non-project land use issues (Lodge loading dock), with the project. Regarding the loading dock, there were not sufficient findings shown by the dissenting Planning Commissioners or appellants to reach a threshold for an Environmental Impact Report, or EIR. Appeals can be made but appellants can’t just get an EIR because they don’t like a project; there has to be findings that support the contention to bring the process to that next CEQA threshold level.
It is obvious from the track record of Fisk Watts’ comments, that the loading dock is really her main issue. Fisk Watts has a long-term battle going on with the Lodge and city about the loading dock. To an outside observer, the project appears as a proxy issue to press Fisk Watts’ demands about the loading dock. The loading dock aspect of the appeal, and all related loading dock comment previously, can reasonably be seen to have a large element of being about prior impacts to the Fisk Watts household personally.
Seven, Fisk Watts continues with a tacit conflation of loading dock issues with the project and then asserts that in general, as per appeal basis and facts, that no addressing of these impacts or mitigations have been offered (as if everyone has to buy into her loading dock thesis), even though the project has been through a long-term community iterative process, and two Planning Commission hearings where many, many, many changes have been made to satisfy critiques of the project, including parking, traffic, and noise.
One by one the project’s issues list has been addressed, leaving the appellant and the neighbor group with less real substantive issues each time. Now it is down to parking as the core issue, with an appellant-obligatory conflation with the loading dock as part of the rationale and appeal argument.
Eight, the appeal makes a specific request to the city council, even though earlier in the appeal the project was referred to as “the county’s low income housing project.”
Nine, the appeal refers to “the City Planner”, presumably the Planning Director.
Ten, the appeal refers to an EIR as an “Environmental Impact Review” when the proper term is Environmental Impact Report.
Lynn Fisk Watts is a smart and articulate person who has real issues with real problems about the Lodge loading dock. However, the aggregate effect of her inexact and dismissive language usage regarding the project shows a lack of respect and seriousness, that serves to diminish the credibility of the appeal, at least in the form of the initial application.
Eleven, the appeal implies that findings do exist to show that an EIR is justified, but it does not state those findings in any substantive way, only in a general continuation of preference-based objections, in the now long-term dispute over the project. If facts and a strong basis for an EIR did exist, why where these not made in the last hearing that led to Planning Commission approval of the project?
Twelve, the appeal concludes by referring to a host of issues: Lodge loading dock diesel fumes, diesel pollution, traffic, parking, noise, that basically reduce the appeal to being primarily about the loading dock, and any way that the loading dock can be leveraged into the city council’s appeal deliberations.
The bottom line is that the lodge loading dock is Fisk Watt’s and project opponents’ primary remaining issue, in a process where they have been opposed in just about every possible way imaginable. It’s all down to a few things now. The Lodge loading dock, however, represents a prior and unrelated land use issue that calls to be addressed on its own merits, in its own frame. The SAHA project is not contingent on, nor should it be burdened with Lodge loading dock issues.
The appeal form asks for the facts and the basis of the appeal. The Planning Commission has approved the project, MND and use permit, and the Planning Director specifically noted that there were no findings, “none”, that would support an Environmental Impact Report or EIR. If CEQA, EIR threshold-level findings were not able to be produced by project opponents or by the two dissenting Planning Commissioners, and the Planning Director does not, and likely will not, see an EIR as necessary, should the city council uphold the appeal, it would likely be on the basis of persuasion by subjective preferences and not facts. In this type of situation, the city attorney would likely advise the council that it was exposing the city to a losable lawsuit.
Upshot, the CEQA process, MND and EIR, is about objective information only. Preferences certainly frame how people view information, but the CEQA process itself is well established, and not subject to normal persuasive debating and/or rhetorical techniques. Regardless of feelings about the project, a factual basis, as defined by CEQA, is the process in place, and this is the track this appeal is on.
I’ve been a strong project advocate from the start, and I think the good far outweighs the bad here. Given the tremendous need for housing in the city and county now, and that this project is the right thing to do in so many ways, for reasons of regional planning, maintaining green separators, climate change, and social equity, there is a strong preferential background, and a strong CEQA factual basis for council project approval. This process has been prolonged long enough. A fast track council hearing is needed to finally get to the end game stages and get shovels in the ground ASAP.