Auto lot project gets green light

Posted on December 5, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The mixed-use development proposed for the site of a long-abandoned Sonoma car lot was approved by the city council with 3-1 vote to deny an appeal of the controversial project. Barring legal action by opponents, the decision clears the way for The Gateway, a cluster of homes, apartments and retail space at the corner of Broadway and MacArthur Streets.

After years of wrangling and design changes, the project was finally approved by the city planning commision in September. Plans for the old Sonoma Truck and Auto parcel called for 23 townhomes, 8 flats, 8 apartment units and 4,100 square feet of commercial space.

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The December 3 vote denied an appeal filed by local architects Bill Willers and Victor Conforti. They argued that an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should have been required.

The appeal also contended that the clustering of eight regulated, affordable units, rather than their being dispersed among the market-rate housing units, violates Sonoma’s Development Code. The mass and height of the project, which would array three-story building on the 1.9-acre lot, were also among the objections.

The council voted to deny the appeal, which by protocol is done by passing a resolution. That document was improper, argued Larry Barnett during public comments. He pointed out that the motion to deny the appeal was insufficient and a number of issues remained unresolved. (Barnett, a former Sonoma mayor, is a member of The Sun editorial board.)

Other community members expressed objections to moving ahead. Lou Braun, who lives near the project, asked the council to consider the need for an EIR and the dire implications of classifying Sonoma as an “urban area,” which state law defines as an incorporated city of 100,000 people. Conforti stressed provisions of the Housing Accountability Act and the too-high price of the eight very small, 453 sq. ft. affordable units.

Charlotte Ruffner, a retired attorney who lives near the proposed project, spoke strongly in favor of it, said the current site is an eyesore and that proposal should move ahead.

Scott Hunter, the project’s developer, briefly addressed the council expressing excitement about moving forward, as did the attorney for the project, who dismissed opponent’s concerns.

Ultimately, Councilmembers Madolyn Agrimonti, David Cook and Gary Edwards — in his final meeting on the panel — voted to deny the appeal. Rachel Hundley was the lone dissenting vote.

In another twist to the ongoing story, Councilmember Amy Harrington recused herself. At a November council hearing, Harrington asked that the council delay the scheduled vote on the issue — she was concerned that because of the proximity of her law office to the project site, she might have to recuse herself. Pending advice from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, she asked the council to postpone the vote. It did so, but demanded that the matter be heard on December 3, regardless. As she had not heard from the FPPC by then, she declined to vote.

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The Gateway appeal was first heard by the council in September. No decision was reached; in fact, the council voted for review, including the placement of “story poles,” tall poles on the site to suggest the height of the planned buildings. It was feedback from this period that led to design changes, changes that Barnett argued were not described in the final language of the motion denying the appeal approved by the council. He criticized the city attorney “for allowing a vote on an incomplete and ambiguous motion.”

Councilmember Hundley was also troubled by the fact the resolution to deny the appeal had been drafted without full and proper discussion of critical issues by the council.

A court challenge is possible. Project critics say a precedent-setting court decision indicates that, under conditions relevant to this project, an EIR should be conducted. But unless a lawsuit is filed, the project approval and its entitlements have been granted.


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