Congratulations to Boyes Hot Springs historian and artist Michael Acker for his recently released book, “The Springs Resort Towns of Sonoma Valley,” which is part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series. It’s thrilling that the publisher recognized the historical significance of our community and approached Acker to do the book. You’ll recognize a number of buildings, and the longer you’ve lived in Sonoma Valley, the more images will be familiar to you. You can buy the book at Reader’s Books in Sonoma. If you see Acker, he’ll autograph your copy.
As we create the Springs Specific Plan, Acker’s book should be mandatory reading for the consultants, the De Novo Planning Group, county planner Yolanda Solano, and the members of the Community Advisory Team. Just like an old house that fell into disrepair before it was restored to its former grandeur and upgraded for current needs, so too can we do this with the Springs’ Highway 12 corridor. But from what I saw at last month’s community planning workshop, we’re at risk due to the consultants’ treating the Springs as if it were a mid-size Bay Area city with minimal historical significance, instead of treating it as a semi-rural string of small, former resort towns surrounded by agricultural lands and hillsides.
To remind you, I served nine years on the City of Sonoma’s planning commission and did its last general plan update. Never before have I seen a planning process where participants were told there’s only three possible options, here’s the general description of each, now go vote for one. Yes, we were told we could mix and match components among the options, such as swap one plan’s amount of commercial space with another plan’s number of housing units. But who made the decision that our only choices for new housing are to decide if there should be 44 units, 277 or 652? Or that new commercial space will be 141,093 square feet, 183,540 or 256,000?
What was lacking in the consultant’s presentation at the meeting, and is lacking in their written alternatives report, is context. Good land use planning is about analyzing alternatives and their impact within a broader context. For example, the consultants have suggested allowing three story buildings up to 45 feet tall between Calle del Monte and Balsam Avenue. Currently, only two-story buildings are allowed. But without being provided any information about what the potential visual, traffic and other impacts of such a change would be, community members aren’t enabled to vote responsibly.
Same lack of information about impacts is true with the consultants’ suggestion to remove sections of the center turn lane in order to allow parking right on the highway. Their presentation at the meeting didn’t include the fact that if the center turn lane were removed, left turns onto several streets would be restricted. You had to read the full report to learn this. What, then, would be the impact on traffic in neighboring streets? What would be the impact on public safety if emergency vehicles can’t get around highway traffic without a center lane?
Regarding allowing 45-foot tall buildings on Highway 12. The height limit in the City of Sonoma is 35 feet for three-story buildings. A building doesn’t need 45 feet to fit into three stories. I wonder what the agenda is behind proposing an increased height limit of 45 feet? Image if the new white stucco, two-story building across from Siesta Way was three stories and 45 feet tall? Image if there were several of them along both sides of the highway? Allowing 45-foot tall buildings could likely set the stage for four-story development. It wouldn’t be long before a developer would ask for an exception to the three-story limit, claiming what difference would it make as long as they keep to the 45-foot height limit?
Furthermore, allowing three-story and potentially four-story buildings would encourage the eventual mowing down of most of what exists between Calle del Monte and Balsam Avenue, and not just the currently boarded up buildings. Developers want to maximize the financial potential of their properties. There would be an incentive to tear down one-story buildings and replace them with three-story. In some cases this could be preferable, but it also puts the community at risk of losing the connection to our history.
The planning consultants said they would have a draft specific plan to present to the community this summer. So far the community meetings haven’t allowed for individuals to provide input other than through sticky dots, writing on post-its, filling out surveys, or participating in small group discussions. By the next meeting, it’s time for the process to evolve to allow members of the public to actually speak in public, just like they get to do in the City of Sonoma.