Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is a member of Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards, as well as Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley.


Cheese Factory perambulations

Posted on January 20, 2019 by Fred Allebach

The appeal of the Sonoma Cheese Factory project has one point of agreement among factions in town for and against the current proposed project. Both sides finger the city as derelict in arriving at a parking, tourism and economic development plan that gives a clear, predictable path forward for all town stakeholders. 

Maybe it is natural that appeal disputes such as this one and others would come at the end of a General Plan’s active period.  What appears to be happening now is that the Plaza development process is being driven by a series of push-the-edge luxury development proposals, and not a community baseline planning consensus that such proposals have to conform to. 

The 2017-18 fight over membership on the Planning Commission, that resulted in reconstituted city commissions, was a contest for power and control, showing that various town factions do not buy into the same vision for the future. Conclusion: the current General Plan is outdated and city planning policy has not adjusted to fairly represent the interests of the times. 

The power and control fight’s current iteration has resulted in a relatively clear city council majority that could easily last four or more years, time enough to put clear directional policy in place. 

Regardless of who is in control, whatever a new General Plan says, it will likely be a type of bromide full of weasel wording that seeks to satisfy all parties, and thus provides more basis for endless arguing over interests. This kind of contestation is never going away, as fighting is what we do best! 

The argument that Planning Commission decisions are infallible has been shown to be wrong. Appeals have been upheld on the basis of law and written merits. The outcome is only “wrong” if a party is on the losing side. All sides see the city and Planning Commission as biased if they don’t win. 

The ongoing kerfuffle over Plaza and other core area development and housing projects simply represents a community riven with conflicts of interest.  All involved actors attempt to frame their own interests as matters of fact, law, and substance, and to delegitimize others by whatever means necessary, including nasty personal attacks. All interests attempt to work the process to their advantage. Getting to some common ground seems almost a naive pipe dream in the age of Trump-normalized attack and vilification. 

The last city council election’s developer-sponsored attacks left a bad taste in the community that still lingers, and may portend even worse as time goes by. We’ll see if things get reduced to the lowest common denominator, and if we get mired in a regime of crafty blame shifting, or if certain critical actors can raise the level of debate.   

In my opinion, the city, council and staff, over a period of years, have allowed an atmosphere of war-like contestation over the town’s future to develop, in place of fostering a community dialogue to reconcile the various interests at stake. This intractable war atmosphere is part-ways what gave rise to Sustainable Sonoma, as a possible way towards community reconciliation. Basically, what we have, in the city and county, is a failure of planning ahead, and where commercial forces have been allowed free reign, and where resident push back, by whatever means necessary, has become necessary as a check.

This “whatever means necessary” is seen by some as a peculiar malfunction of Sonoma, that some don’t want any “change” at all. I think Sonoma’s atmosphere of contestation is politically normal. 

As certain hot development battles have been fought, and a monoculture economy cultivated, other salient problems, most notably low wages and affordable housing, have fallen by the wayside. These issues fester as significant consequences and serious problems that need to be addressed, not only by Sonoma, but by all other coastal California municipalities, locals and developers, addressed as part of any project. 

This general dispute among local interests is what Council Goals have, for years, identified as “balancing community character.” In spite of this re-occurring goal, community interests remain unbalanced. The reasons for this are multi-fold, one is that pro-growth and sustainability interests are fundamentally split and possibly irreconcilable; two, city decision makers have been split by ideological allegiances into these two general camps; three, social equity and environmental preservation are core issues that aren’t going away, and this brings us back to square one: let the market not deal, or try to plan ahead. 

I see this stalemate as matter of faith vs. reason, faith by free market advocates, as there is no proof it works, and reason by planning pragmatists, to use our own deliberative powers as people, to seek the ends we want.   

This general pattern is what the whole state is up against regarding commercial and residential development. In past analyses I have called this pattern “the green checkmate.” All local actors bear some responsibility for creating this checkmate. To address this stalemate, there is pressure to streamline permitting and have less time-consuming process review, and to limit possible appeals. But, market rate projects, both commercial and residential, do not address the core area median income housing supply and obscene cost of living problems. Market rate business as usual is not going to save us, but market rate actors are so deeply entrenched, there is no getting them out of there. This may be the inertia that drags the whole system under, failure to refocus incentives to serve what people really need rather than serve the profit desires of a few.

 On the other side of the check, some residents want the character, authenticity, atmosphere, and open space from which high quality, North Bay life derives, and they want the chance to have community oversight over any changes, and this flavor of business as usual has resulted in low density and super high prices. The only trouble here is that the character argument rests on a kind of well disguised, tacit apartheid, fill of code words and dog whistles that takes a lot of work to unmask. For example, the UGB process, how can we possibly mete real demographic and affordability needs by cramming the necessary number of people into an increasingly limited and over-priced space?   

Basically, the California paradox is: people who already have it good want to be sustainable by limiting other people’s ability to participate in the high quality of life. This limiting pushes workers to the edge of the metro area, and makes a feudal arrangement of castle and peons. The core protects its open space, while ironically, open space at the metro area edges is necessarily eaten up. The core, for example, wants no gravel mines, but gravel is needed from somewhere, just not in my back yard. It’s a case of I got mine, and who cares about quality of life elsewhere in the Central Valley or in Lake County.   

On one track, many Sonoma appeals are about vested local stakeholders trying to hold the line against what seems like a crazy level of intensification of commercial use. As mentioned and is known, market rate actors are wolves, you can’t really look to them for systemic salvation. Housing, proposed intensifications of higher density and infill, are about making up for supply lost to speculator investment following the 2008 mortgage bundling fiasco. There are very real contradictory tensions going on, between inclusion and exclusion, between growth and sustainability, and the forces are arrayed such that all check each other, and regardless of ideals and good intentions, nothing comprehensive gets done. This fever and stalemate needs to get broken.

If clear decision maker majorities are needed, to make policy a one-way street, then so be it. This is California. Let the blue guys run the show. 

And, if local commercial intensification (expanded Cheese Factory), and some modicum of higher density is made, we’ll need multiple parking garages in the Springs and Sonoma, as parking is a thorny, related issue, and cars don’t seem to be going away any time soon, especially if all the workers are forced to live in the Central Valley.   

The wine tasting moratorium, the Measure B ballot measure, and various appeals, represent the path that balancing city character with tourism development has taken on the ground. With an expiring General Plan, past consensus is expired as well, all that is left now for planning is a chess match of proposals and appeals. The 4/17/18 city Planning Dept. drop in public meeting on wine tasting issues, bled into a discussion on a whole range of planning options that by consensus, were calling for a larger view, more controls, and less free for all. All agreed, wine tasting proliferation was only a symptom of larger forces at play that need to be addressed. 

And when will they be addressed? In the next General Plan formulation process, to unfold over the next five years. Always have to wait, just a little longer! And in the meantime, projects that don’t reflect any consensus keep knocking on the door and inertia substitutes for planning. And even after the new General Plan is in place, what guarantee is there that conflicting interests will be reconciled? When has humanity ever reconciled fundamental differences in a good way? 

For the Plaza overlay area, the old General Plan is not satisfying all parties, and into this vacuum, come developers with the ability to lobby and put forward out-of-scale projects designed to cash in more and more on the current tourism boom. The city itself, by council vote, is in large part responsible for creating the extreme tourism demand, by creating the Tourism Improvement District, (TID) that now spends $750,000 a year to tell the whole world, or at least the millions in the Bay Area, to come here, by bus, car, limo, plane and train.

And so, California continues to recap its founding event, the Gold Rush. Boom and bust, I guess we’ll find the new gold, water and land, somewhere…

Every polity needs some sort of economic development plan, as not many are like Sonoma, made up of wealthy, predominantly white home-owning retirees that don’t need jobs or affordable housing. The trouble in Sonoma has come from seeing tourism development as a zero sum, whole hog, bonanza-type game. Without any reasonable limits, or planning of a win-win scenario for all residents and actors, the Sonoma playing field has become overly stilted to luxury and unaffordability. The Cheese Factory is one more luxury project that will not adequately serve equity needs. Who is going to gather as a community to buy over-priced artisan salami? Frankly, Sonoma does not really need another place to go buy $80 paring knives. 

Speaking of money, Plaza rents have skyrocketed. The historic Plaza has gradually turned into a luxury tourism bonanza that alienates locals and serves speculators, investors, transients, and also acts as a cash cow to fill the city coffers. Residents, workers and small business are caught in the no-effective-planning cross fire. The Plaza has become more and more exclusive, not inclusive, the same for society here overall. Exclusive locals like it, they want more. Have another drink. The city appears to like the money as well. The Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau gets $600,000 a year free money from the city and TID, to pay its elven-member staff to devise more ways for commercial entities to cash in. No wonder we have a parking problem! Frankly, things have gotten out of control. Appeals like the one now for the Cheese Factory, or the wine tast9ng moratorium, are canaries in the coal mine, “hey, wait, this is not all fine and dandy…” 

One argument pro-Plaza development supporters make is that Cheese Factory developers should not be held liable for all existing Plaza parking woes. It is the city, they say, that bears the burden of having to lay out a proper context. Precisely. 

But the city itself is caught betwixt worlds, and in a positon of having to represent multiple conflicting interests. 

The reason for so many appeals is that the economic development ground is not clear and not in step with town as it is today, and the city has failed to adjust, not just for commercial interests, but for residents too. What it the solution? Allow a maladaptive parking milieu to continue because there is no good way to make parties accountable? When do any limits get put in? What about unregulated parking spillover into neighborhoods and major street right of ways, like at Sonoma’s Best? Can the Plaza reasonably handle an Oxbow level of parking? At a recent event at the Barking Dog to see Mike Thompson, I had to park a quarter mile away. Can anyone say parking garage(s)?  

So sure, it’s not fair for one developer to have to be held accountable for parking issues that have been allowed to get out of control by the ultimate regulatory agency in the first place. It’s also not fair or right for the city to just go ahead on an everything-is-great, no limits, one-big-party automatic pilot and ignore the consequences. A zero-sum game strategy, go for the money, might be a short-term win for the city, but it is also a long-term losing proposition for many. Accountability has to start somewhere, sometime, for somebody. Someone, somewhere, has to start paying the piper. Will that be in a systemic way that many can see as fair, or in an ad hoc way that most see as unfair?

All the micro-substantive arguments that go into appeals and planning decisions are like a plane flying 30 feet over the ground, lacking larger perspective as to how such arguments fit into a larger picture. They all add up to a multidimensional checkmate. I’m hoping the new Planning Commission and Planning Director will have the will and time to articulate the issues, and frame them in  such a way as the people can see where we are going to address the tensions and conflicts. 

Appeals, while perhaps tedious and unsavory for the unreconciled acrimony brought to bear, also indicate that something is not right in the Kingdom. It’s city policy that it is not right, and that gets back to whose interests the city is representing, and what the plans are. Why does the context always seem to be a zero-sum game and not framed towards a win-win? If the tourism can be made to pay out more equitably, then maybe at least workers can start supporting more hotels and cheese factories.

Council members ran, they won, now they can make the tough calls, they get to say who is going to pay the piper. They appointed sharp planning commissioners, now we have some smarts we can hang our hat on. Or will these smarts be used for intricate rationales to support various factions, to support small town character apartheid?  Will it be residents, neighbors, and local businesses who pay in terms of crazy congestion, no parking, and no housing because neighborhoods have been sacked by wealthy second home owners and vacation rentals, by people who need artisan salami? Or developers who pay in terms of a reasonable  in lieu fee ($90 a square foot), or scaled back projects and profits, that fit the size of what downtown Sonoma can reasonably handle?

It’s easy enough for me to riff on about all of this, and I’ll contribute my two cents here, and wait to see what pragmatic solutions come of the new planning kitchen. 



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