The Donald Street neighbors called a meeting and turned out a good-sized crowd that filled the library meeting room. The hot topic? Three parcels of high density zoning south of Donald Street and just east of Robinson Road.
(Please see my previous write-up of the same neighbor group’s open public comments at the last Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Committee (SVCAC) meeting.)
In attendance were Supervisor Susan Gorin, Ms. Gorin’s two top aides Pat Gilardi and Liz Hamon, one planner who has been with the SSP from the start, one PRMD (Permit Sonoma) staffer (new SSP lead Kyle Rabellino), and an intern. Also in attendance were Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) member and respected senior county planner Greg Carr, multiple SSP Community Action Team, SVCAC, new Municipal Advisory Committee (MAC), and Springs Community Alliance members. Also present were many involved locals and non-Donald community members, including affordable housing advocates Ann Colichidas (Golden State Manufactured Homeowners League), Teri Shore (Greenbelt Alliance) and myself (Sonoma Valley Housing Group, see SVHG Facebook page).
The public should be confident that “government” took the overall issues seriously, just by the sheer number acronyms necessary to describe the evening.
An agenda and list of questions was produced by the Donald group, who have named themselves Friends of North Sonoma, with a Facebook page of that name. The group’s questions centered on the following topics: property values, traffic, parking, neighborhood character, if the neighborhood was actually in the Springs, SSP meeting notification process, zoning decisions and zoning map version, and neighborhood ingress and egress/ fire safety. Kyle Rabellino at PRMD produced a FAQ list that addressed/answered many of the questions.
The meeting had the trappings of an actual public meeting; an elected official and many county staff were present. Donald leader Gary DeSmet was the meeting MC. Signs were posted encouraging proper decorum.
Gorin sets the stage
First off, Ms. Gorin gave a short talk about her planning and neighborhood bone fides, that she is “familiar with the passion of neighbors,” that she is a neighborhood advocate, involvement makes a better plan, she said, and she wants to make sure this plan meshes with the neighborhood. Only zoning is in question now she said, there is no particular project at stake.
Then Ms. Gorin gave a concise run-down of the SSP process. She was a county rep at the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) when regional PDAs (Priority Development Areas, i.e. optimal places to focus growth) and RCIAs (Rural Community Investment Centers) were defined to address anticipated regional growth, development, and needed housing. Grant money for the SSP was contingent on the latter definitions being present in the Springs geographic area. Susan then worked to bring home $450,000 of grant money for the SSP.
Continuing, Ms. Gorin said, the SSP then had a series of community meetings where various alternatives were presented to the public. The SSP is now in the DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report) preparation phase (EIR scoping period closed 7/18); when the DEIR comes out in April, it will be reviewed by the new MAC, the SVCAC, the BZA and then decided on at likely just one BOS (Board of Supervisors) hearing. Upon being passed, the SSP will be codified into the county General Plan.
Ms. Gorin went on to say that she wants “appropriate growth” and also wants to make sure the county does its part to create needed workforce housing for people whose annual income is on a spectrum of the area median income, or AMI. (AMI-level workers run the gamut from gardeners, house cleaners, hospitality and vineyard workers to teachers, dental hygienists, police, firemen etc. In today’s “hourglass economy”, with a missing middle class, about 50% or more people in the county cannot afford market rate housing costs. I don’t think anyone is asserting there is not a serious housing problem that needs to be solved.) Ms. Gorin outlined that valley employers were having trouble hiring, because there are no available housing units for workers to live in.
The county has a responsibility to look for opportunities to house the workforce, said Gorin. There is a housing crisis, and the Bay Area and county need to match jobs with affordable housing. Displacement and externalization of workers has turned the whole Bay Area into a congested mess of outlandish commuting. Ms. Gorin closed by posing a question: how do we work to create an inclusive future?
Put the new guy on the spot!
Next up was new SSP planner Kyle Rabellino, who is only three weeks into the project, but determined to come up to speed quickly.
Mr. Rabellino noted that there are two primary SSP documents now being produced, the DEIR process, that focuses on objective environmental issues, and also the Draft Specific Plan, which is where zoning is addressed. No final decisions have been made, he said. No projects have been proposed as part of the Plan in the Donald area. Ms. Gorin and staff noted over and over again that opportunities to participate and to weigh in are still very much available to the neighbors.
It could be many years before anything would actually be built in the SSP area. As part of the county doing its part to address the regional housing crisis, the SSP looks at making high intensity residential, development next to major transit routes. (All SSP locations, basically in a strip along Highway 12 and along Verano Ave, and are within easy walking distance of major local transit routes.)
The SSP is programmatic, which is to say it provides a programmed blueprint for the specific plan area, mitigations will be defined in the SSP CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process and will not have to be reinvented every time somebody wants to build something. Mr. Rabellino said that growth is anticipated in the SSP area. The Plan provides a long-term vision to guide growth. All future development in the defined area will need to be consistent with the SSP, kind of like a mini General Plan within the Specific Plan area.
After the SSP is passed, permits for building within the Plan area can be at ministerial level, i.e. no CEQA. Having a programmatic EIR for the whole SSP takes out future discretionary permit layers, where CEQA would kick in. If permits had to be discretionary, they would then need to be reviewed by the SVCAC, MAC, BZA and maybe the BOS. Doing all the work up front in a programmatic way gains efficiencies later in terms of being able to get projects going.
CEQA challenges have become a North Bay cottage industry, and as one who has watched stakeholders take every possible CEQA stalling angle, and watched consultants try to turn the dials to favor applicant’s projects, I can see the whole SSP DEIR thing shaping up as one big hot mess. This mess potential will be mitigated by the fact that the county is far away, and unless there are local meetings, people simply won’t be able to participate because of daytime meetings and distance to get there.
Linking Draft Plan zoning alternatives to CEQA impacts will be a line attack, or of support. There will be time for affordable housing advocates to marshal their forces.
CASA, Committee to House the Bay Area, seeks to bypass CEQA for qualifying areas, to mitigate NIMBY stalling on housing. NIMBYs and others are concerned this will open the floodgates to market rate housing and not solve the real area median income housing issue, that it will be a sellout to the already-moneyed developer community lobby and their proxy sellouts the YIMBYs. This is a complex situation, but at bottom, one main reason for CASA, and for Governor Newsom’s harder line on housing, is to counteract the CEQA stalling brought to bear by NIMBYs with character and other arguments about property values, traffic and parking.
Back to Kyle
For the DEIR, there will be the opportunity for additional participation in April when the report is released. (EIR scoping comment period closed 7/18) There will be a 45 day review period, and that can be extended if need be. Rabellino referenced resources online about how to best comment on a DEIR. The CEQA EIR process is an “objective, specific document” he said. The DEIR and final EIR addresses specific, measurable environmental effects. Expert consultants are hired to research and cover the 14 different EIR aspects. The methodology will be outlined in the DEIR and the research will be done on-site in the SSP area.
The Draft Plan (not measurable environmental science but human planning) will be released along with the DEIR. The Draft Plan has more subjective elements, like what zoning to put where. The DEIR “has to look at all the alternatives”, said Rabellino. (The DEIR alternatives and consequences are defined in the Draft Plan, so the two elements, DEIR and Draft Plan are inextricably linked, i.e. if you change the Plan, you change the environmental effects. Given that the SSP process as a whole is fairly well advanced now, the question of how much and whether the Donald neighbors can come in after the fact, and demand alterations outside of a public meeting context, is questionable. How will the rest of the public know what the Donald people may be able to change? Can all advocates now go in to PRMD and demand changes? Maybe time for Los Cien to focus on this Plan and put some pressure for their constituents’ interests to be included in the Plan.)
At the end of the DEIR and Draft Plan process, the Planning Commission will review and give a recommendation to the BOS. Later in the meeting, it became clear that many if not most of the neighbors were not able to discriminate between the DEIR and the Draft Plan. (It is not easy to follow and conceive of full government processes, even for people who go to a lot of meetings. It takes years of hard work and dedication to be an informed citizen.)
Mr. Rabellino closed by giving some larger context on the state and regional housing crisis, about the need for city-centered growth i.e. infill, in USAs (Urban Service Areas, i.e. areas with municipal water and sewer) and in ABAG PDAs. It costs too much to extend water and sewer to undeveloped areas, the cost of that adds to the per-unit price point; it makes sense to build where you already have infrastructure. Half of county households cannot afford market rate housing prices, and higher density is a way to achieve economies of scale to make units affordable at AMI levels. (Without the density and requisite lot size, there won’t be qualifying for a density bonus, and thus the ability to lower price points to the full AMI spectrum of workers.) The county is looking to build 30,000 new units, in existing USAs. The state has aggressive housing objectives. CASA (Committee to House the Bay Area) is a regional formula to use to meet those aggressive goals. Outside of USAs and PDAs, green separators and UGBs act to hem in new housing. (This all adds up to what I term the green/ character checkmate, where in every direction there are apparently reasonable arguments to not build affordable housing. Everyone says they are for affordable housing, just not in their brown-fields back yards or in any green-fields open space. Checkmate for affordable housing.)
In spite of the posters on the wall, and reminders by Mr. DeSmet to respect decorum, when it came time for comments and questions, the crowd became unruly, very unruly at times. There was shouting out and interrupting of staff and of Supervisor Gorin. Mr. DeSmet did not control the crowd; he let them go, and seemed happy to be presiding over the smell of fresh blood, to be sure that the neighbors “were heard.” Looking at Ms. Gorin, DeSmet said, “did you hear what he said?” There was a distinct mob rule sense going on. DeSmet became angry at times, channeling the crowd’s anger behind him; he said to Ms. Gorin, “answer the question.” He sarcastically pointed to the slide showing county outreach efforts, rolling his eyes. This added up to an unfavorable impression, as seen by multiple non-partisan actors present. The desired focus on neighbor content issues was undercut by poor process.
We weren’t notified
The neighbors seemed to have zero sense that they bear some responsibility to be informed about public process. There is a Mexican Spanish phrase that fits here, Camaron que duerme, se lo lleva la corriente. The sleeping shrimp gets carried away by the current. It doesn’t do much good to blame the current… The county made a good faith effort through normal, common channels. If people are not publicly focused, whose fault is that?
A common refrain, of the neighbors wanting to be heard was emphasized. But being heard seemed to conflate for the crowd that Ms. Gorin would overtly or covertly signal to agree with them, and for her to adopt a similar level of groupthink. Sure, she heard them. But decision makers weigh all the public comment, and the merits outside of sheer emotionalism from this stakeholder group or that. Decision makers don’t decide on the spot, at a hot mess meeting; that would be a breach of due diligence and of fairness to other stakeholders who, in this case, may want high density housing opportunities. But again, and again DeSmet drove home his point, “did you hear that?’ It got to be kind of bullying and rude.
The need for due diligence is why staff and Ms. Gorin kept emphasizing that it is good for the public to participate and to be involved. The whole meeting was about the public being heard. Yet the crowd seemed to take umbrage to staff comments that this is being involved, thank you, and pressed Ms. Gorin to take a stance on their specific content. “Answer the question” became a proxy for, “tell me what I want to hear…” “agree with the question.”
Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer, noted that a group will be known by its lowest common denominator. I’d say that in spite of putting a good face on things, Ms. Gorin had to be put out by the meeting’s atmosphere and tone. In my opinion, the message was heard and a negative impression was made.
Only neighbors were allowed to ask questions and when a non-neighbor got the floor every now and then, ring leaders signaled to DeSmet to cut them off. Only one set of messages allowed this night. I was not allowed to speak.
A take home point, if mob rule and anger can get plans opened back up and changed on an a la carte basis, and can change policy, note to the public: all you have to do is call a meeting, turn out 50 people, invite the supervisor, be rude and angry and shout, and you can get your way.
How are we getting mixed up with low income?
The question, of how the Donald area came to be included in the SSP got a lot of play. One neighbor said, “I didn’t apply to be in an RCIA.” Another said homes in the Donald area were worth over $1 million, how is it that “we were classed as low income” and low income people would come in here? What about my property values?
Staff answered that the breakdown of the Springs area was done by Census tract, and there are multiple DAC (Disadvantaged Community) tracts in the Springs, with households earning under $40,000 a year. The tracts have mixed income levels within them. (Public policy calls for addressing the needs of those at the bottom of the ladder as well as those who relatively have it made. This issue cuts to the heart of fair representation and gerrymandering: do the wealthy get to close off their neighborhoods? Have their own a la carte representative? Make a de facto single family home, low density segregation? Where is this guaranteed by anybody?)
Staff continued by saying that Sonoma County is not the most urban county in the Bay Area, and rural counties have concentrated areas, in the USA’s and PDAs, where growth makes sense.
The RCIA was set to confirm with USA boundaries as well. A primary justification for the SSP plan boundary is because there is water and sewer infrastructure in place. Access to transit is another top item. This RCIA is rural, and not anticipating super levels of growth; the SSP represents, among other things, a proportional lower valley semi-rural area taking of responsibility for its housing needs. (The lower valley as a whole is a unified USA, a unified urban area, administered by two main municipalities, city and county. This area is a county backwater in terms of urban intensity, but the intensity all plays out along the Highway 12, Napa Rd., 8th Street East and Arnold Drive. There is a structure of urban facts on the ground here, and a proportional bandwidth to which the area as a whole has a nexus to provide AMI housing. To not endeavor to provide the nexus of AMI housing, is to surrender to allowing the lower valley area to become disproportionally top end, a Woodstock VT, Carmel, Tiburon, Marin County kind of place.)
High density zoning
The principle objection of the neighbors is the inclusion of a three-parcel high density zoning area in their territory. The yellow-colored, low density single family home density does not want any changes, especially with brown-colored high density, orange-colored medium density, maybe. One neighbor said, “the existing zoning is there for a reason.” (And what reason might that be? Hasn’t land use in this area made an evolution from 40-acre, 10-acre, 5-acre parcels to single family homes, and now zoning evolves as the demographic evolves, just like it did to create the current milieu? Nothing about zoning guarantees a stasis. Zoning is nothing but the evolution of land use and societal needs, although some attempt to use zoning for protectionism and redlining of class privilege. Redlining is well known historically, as a tacit suburban protectionism. Thus, character arguments come to be proxy class protectionist arguments. Anti-immigrant sentiment is the same thing at a national level; building a wall is analogous to protecting existing zoning. And everyone here in the liberal North Bay is for inclusion and social justice, just not in their back yard.)
We’re not in the Springs
One point made by the neighbors is that they are not part of the Springs, (one of the Donald neighbor ringleader’s husband, Wheatley, is an alternate on the new MAC; he will get his say.) Who and what is “the Springs” is an old parlor argument going from more to less inclusive points. Basically, what we have is an urbanized, lower valley concentration of people that live in the same USA, and it is convenient to call all of them all “the Springs.” Thermal waters underlie the whole area at various depths, so the Springs moniker is good enough for the whole USA.
This “we’re not part of the Springs” argument opens up lower valley, Balkanized identity politics. It is one more version of fantasy island. If we go neighborhood by neighborhood for our primary identity, that makes us all into collection of micro-interest tribes and not really “all in this together.” It sets up an isolationism, makes islands of privilege, and elides taking any collective responsibility, puts tribalism and protectionism as the top value. Collective issues get shunted off in the obfuscation of the green checkmate dynamic. Saying you are not against affordable housing elides that realistically, not enough can be built to cover the AMI spectrum without the brown zoning. A zero-sum game is created, my character, my exclusive, privileged property values etc., versus including others to allow them some modicum of success. Others coming up drags me down, every dog for himself.
Who is upzoning us?
Where did the current, SSP version #8 zoning map come from and why? Who is “upzoning” us? The planner said that after the fires, and after the 2008 real estate fiasco, after a better than 50% increase in rents. “we would be remiss to not look at housing.”
Greg Carr coda
Near the end, Supervisor Gorin asked Greg Carr to speak. Carr asked people to look at BOS agendas for the last two years, to see what the county has been doing for housing. The county has been diversifying density in USAs. The county is not encouraging growth or housing is areas outside of USAs because there is no infrastructure there, (and that would put them in diminishing groundwater resource areas.) PDAs are ways of incentivizing infill. Zoning changes have opened up potential for more ADUs (accessory dwelling units) and cottage housing options (three or four smaller units per lot). The zoning adjustments are about a larger housing policy, to address salient needs.
Conclusions and analysis
At the literal end of the day, the options were clear, if everyone in low density single family homes want to things to stay that way, then we in the lower valley are stuck in an endless NIMBY battle to open up existing neighborhoods, to include the county’s AMI workforce. This will force all AMI-affordable housing onto the Highway 12 and other transit corridors, and to new NIMBY resistance there for too much traffic and parking issues. High density housing along transit was killed in Marin County by NIMBYs. The whole pattern is emblematic of how the human race is not getting the job done for social equity and for mitigating anthropogenic climate change. The tension between knowing what changes are needed and the ability or will to sacrifice for them, is not being met at any scale necessary to make a big enough difference. People talk a good game but have fundamentally unsustainable behavior. If we live in one of the most progressive areas of the country, and we can’t get on the same page to act, to effectively address a serious housing crisis, then I’d say the selfish have won the day. It’s just a matter of time before the sewage comes in the front door for all. Planning ahead is just too difficult for our parochial natures to deal with.
The end game writing on the wall is for ADUs to make up most of the affordable housing need, for the workforce to live in 350 square foot shacks, while status quo single family home areas defend their character against high density. The upshot will be way less affordable units to meet the lower valley’s proportional need, and poor servants commuting from the Central Valley and spending their meager earnings on gas and bad cars, to take care of the aging low density wealthy.
Nonprofit builders will continue to have lack of funds from the Trump effect of starving public housing incentives, and UGBs, and green separators, plus Silicon Valley millionaires will continue to drive up land prices in the Tony Sonoma Valley area, in a perfect storm tipping to elite interests and against social equity.
As the angry crowd started to wear Ms. Gorin out, and neighborhood character came out again as an issue, she said, indicating that she heard, “pretty much assume it’s not going to be the highest growth option.” The SSP allows for customizing of neighborhoods, for stakeholders to have a say.
I started to feel that NIMBYs were going to ruin the whole SSP. What about when other areas with high density zoning wake up from their sleep and want changes? Where will housing opportunities go if no one wants them near them? This is exactly why CASA came up with some hard ball features to neutralize NIMBYs and why the state sued Huntington beach for not building enough affordable housing, and why state transportation funds may be withheld if too many NIMBYs frustrate the development of needed housing.
I’ll have to hope the BOS as a whole will not vote for an SSP that does not adequately create the potential for requisite affordable housing, and that interests will be balanced more in favor of the greater good versus smaller parochial preferences. Balancing could mean two high density parcels instead of three…
The SSP zoning version # 8 zoning map has areas of high density. These brown-colored, proposed high density areas are to plan for the capacity to have some good inclusive housing projects. At this point, the argument is not about any specific project but about the capacity to have AMI affordable housing in the future. This is a worthy goal and it will set the stage for the future. There is no guarantee of what will be built, but certainly no AMI housing at requisite numbers will have a chance without the zoning capacity being in place first.
The lower Sonoma valley, 38,000 people as a whole, is a unified area for population and infrastructure. The whole exists no matter what artificial Special District and municipal boundaries are on any map. From this unified area, our urban core inside a rural-esque valley, there has been demographic displacement and externalization of the AMI workforce, i.e. everybody not in the top 10%. This is unsustainable, unjust, has negative climate impacts, and the lower valley needs to do its part to mitigate this bad trend. This is not about old boogie men about “growth” and “development”; this is about adapting from where we are now, with demographic and climate prerogatives that need to be addressed today.
The SSP as currently proposed to be zoned in map version #8, gives the capacity for future projects to address the local lack of affordable units; that’s what this is all about, zoning capacity. Having a programmatic EIR, for high density zoning options, also addresses the main GHG (greenhouse gas) problem source in the state, personal transportation.
The larger problem, Americans as a whole have a privileged and unsustainable lifestyle, and want to hang on to it at all costs, even if it means dragging the whole ship down with us; there is little sense of willingness to sacrifice, and more of selfishness and of shrimp sleeping in the current. Time for all of us to wake up. How do we work to create an inclusive and sustainable future?