Renew Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary

Posted on September 3, 2019 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The following letter has been sent to the Sonoma City Council:

Request to the Sonoma City Council to vote to place a ballot measure on the March 2020 Primary Election or at the latest a ballot measure on the November 2020 General Election in order that the citizens may vote to renew the existing UGB for an additional 20 years before it expires.

Dear Mayor Harrington and City Council Members:

In November 2000, with a 64% “yes” vote, the voters of the City of Sonoma passed Measure S adopting an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). This voter-approved UGB expires December 31, 2020.

The UGB is a boundary line, almost contiguous with the City Limit boundary line with the exception of a few parcels at the fringe of the city limits. It is an important planning tool that has protected the City of Sonoma for 20 years from urban sprawl and development and preserved its small town rural character. The current UGB supports development within the city-center core – near services, jobs, schools, and public areas – and does not require the need for costly infrastructure extensions. However, by December 31, 2020, it needs to be renewed by the voters without lapsing.

Citizens to Renew City of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary is asking the Sonoma City Council to vote to place a ballot measure on the March 2020 Primary Election or at the latest a ballot measure on the November 2020 General Election in order that the citizens may vote to renew the existing UGB for an additional 20 years before it expires.

Renewing the UGB is more important than ever to support commercial, office, and housing development within the city-center corridor, prevent sprawl, preserve Sonoma’s small-town character, encourage climate-smart planning, and preserve a livable, inclusive and diverse community with potential for walking, bicycling, and small public shuttle transportation modes.

If the boundaries are extended or modified, a new UGB would not be consistent with the current General Plan and Development Code. An extended UGB would be subject to CEQA and costly to the City with the expense of an Environmental Impact Report. Renewing the existing boundaries would require minimal environmental review. The City can go to the voters at any time to revise or change the UGB.

Furthermore, the public most likely is not aware that in compliance with state law regarding the provision of affordable housing, the City Council may amend the UGB boundary, when the City Council finds, based on substantial evidence that:

  • the subject land is immediately adjacent to the existing UGB and serviceable with water and sewer connections;
  • the proposed development will consist primarily of low-and very low-income housing pursuant to the Housing Element of the General Plan:
  • there is no existing vacant or undeveloped residentially-designated land within the UGB to accommodate the proposed development and it is not reasonably feasible to accommodate the proposed development or a modified development by redesignating lands within the UGB for low-and very low-income housing; and
  • the proposed development is necessary to comply with state law housing requirements.

In 2000, Sonoma citizens approved the UGB ballot measure over concern for development sprawl and retention of a sustainable and environmentally-sound small-town, rural city. Since then, the City of Sonoma and its environs have been subjected to intense growth pressures, but that growth has left-behind an inadequate affordable housing stock. Now the UGB is up for renewal and is creating a lively debate whether the current UGB limits affordable housing opportunities.

Is there a relationship between the current UGB and/or the renewal of the current UGB and the affordable housing crunch of the Sonoma Valley in general and the City of Sonoma specifically?

Does the UGB constrain housing development? Sonoma’s Growth Management Ordinance (GMO) limits the number of housing units that can be developed yearly within the City’s UGB to an average of sixty-five, yet over the past 20 years the average number actually produced yearly averages only twenty-seven. Obviously, it is not the UGB that limits housing production, or even the GMO, it is the dynamics of the housing market itself and the City’s priorities and policies. However, City policies must and can support inclusive and diverse affordable housing stock and ensure equal housing opportunities.

In order to solve the problem, the affordable housing shortage will require critical analysis and questioning of all factors including, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Climate change
  • Public transportation within and throughout the Valley
  • Inclusiveness – within all neighborhoods of the City and Valley
  • Diversity of housing
  • Homelessness
  • Preservation of existing housing units and curtailment of conversion of housing stock into vacation rentals and business/commercial uses
  • Prevalence of second (and third) homes
  • Interactive neighborhood energy micro-grids
  • Fossil-fuel contaminating automobile paradigm and transportation connections to SMART, school children transportation, bicycle and other alternative modes of transportation
  • Assurance that affordable housing that is built is for people who live or work in the Valley
  • Real estate market, the free market, and market prices
  • City policies and costs of the inclusionary housing program
  • Addition of small-scale housing, duplexes and cottage-type developments throughout the City and Valley,      including in all single-family neighborhoods
  • Encouragement of co-housing development
  • City staff and council priority to review and process housing proposals
  • Removal of “waiver of housing requirement” in commercial projects
  • Generational succession
  • Promotion of second dwelling units with primary residences
  • Living wages and Sonoma’s local low-paying economy model
  • Job opportunities
  • Infrastructure
  • Public parks and facilities
  • Schools
  • Traffic impacts – including emergency evacuations with two-lane roadways in and out of Sonoma
  • Sustainability – how “big” should Sonoma get??
  • Regional planning, including the Springs
  • Political, economic and social will and wisdom of the community
  • Emergency disaster planning on a large scale
  • Home Sharing

Utilizing emotionally-charged, inaccurate, and unsubstantiated diction and tying the housing crunch to the renewal of the current UGB boundaries, neither promotes solutions nor discourse to the housing problem.

A UGB is an important land use tool, along with zoning, city limit and sphere of influence boundaries, growth management policies, etc. for determining how a city develops and achieves sustainability at a local level and less of a matter of drawing lines. These planning tools serve a community well, not only in terms of economic and social growth, but are important for addressing environmental and livability issues as well. They all work together to provide the “canvas” upon which planning takes place, creating the conditions for better planning by compelling more careful consideration of land use.

Sustainable Sonoma’s partners have been developing a housing declaration  that states in part:….”increase, improve and preserve housing that is affordable, for people who live or work in the Valley, within already developed areas, to create diverse, safe, complete neighborhoods.”
(Valley of the Moon, July/August, Economy, Environment, Everyone by Don Frances)

“Within already developed areas” is consistent with the current UGB or the renewal of those boundaries. The City can’t just be adding “untouched” land in the “hinterlands” without careful consideration of all factors. In the meantime, time is running out to preserve the UGB.

Careful review of City zoning maps and existing development patterns indicate there remains many opportunities for future housing development promoting diversity and inclusiveness, while maintaining the small-town, rural character of Sonoma. In fact, large empty parcels within Sonoma are just now being developed for housing, after twenty years of sitting empty, and an analysis of older, already developed parcels that are prime candidates for creative re-development reveals room for many hundreds of housing units.

Finally, some argue that high land costs are the fault of Sonoma’s UGB. This false argument implies that by growing the city’s limits, land prices will decline. To the contrary, by expanding the UGB, land speculation by developers increases and does not reduce prices, just the opposite. In the growing Bay Area, with over six-million people, land prices have increased everywhere, not just in Sonoma and not just in cities with a UGB. Furthermore, there is no data to support that by expanding the UGB, more “affordable” housing will be built, while limiting large-scale, expensive development.

Some cities in the region embraced housing sprawl and have struggled to remain solvent ever since. Wisely, Sonoma’s voters chose to remain a smaller, rural town and rejected sprawl in favor of careful planning. The exceptional city we enjoy today did not happen by accident, the UGB is one of the primary reasons, and its renewal for another 20 years is essential.

With creative, flexible solutions and with sound land use planning, and without disturbing the UGB, the citizens of the Sonoma community can find solutions to the housing crunch.

With flexibility in the exceptions to the UGB, with the use of sustainable principles and real housing value, future affordable housing development can be inclusive and diverse without impacting existing infrastructure and the environment and contributing to urban sprawl.

The City of Sonoma as well as the County of Sonoma face major challenges as we all grapple with a shortage of affordable housing, income inequality, and a low-paying economy. Working together we can marshal the civic will and courage to do what’s right.

Respectfully submitted,
Johanna M. Patri, AICP

Johanna Patri is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. She is a retired land use planner and consultant for Marin County Community Development Agency with extensive experience in housing, CEQA and preservation. She served on the Board of the Sonoma Land Trust for 27 years and is a past president and honorary member of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation.

3 thoughts on “Renew Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary

  1. Clown show. She asks some great questions but doesn’t answer any of them…. I have one! What is so magical about 20 years? Why is this your magic number?

  2. The 20-year horizon was established with all the original UGBs by the voters as it is the usual duration for each city or county’s General Plan. Now that the UGB is a proven tool for long-term plannning, several cities have gone to 25 or 30 years; and in some places like the city of Napa, it is in place in perpetuity unless the voters change it.

  3. What a great letter. We are almost never invited to consider the big picture as we rush headlong to solve problems in isolation from one another, in the process creating many new problems. Like ripples in a pond.

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