Urban growth boundary ordinance needs language changes

Posted on January 23, 2020 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Sonoma’s 20-year-old urban growth boundary (UGB) is up for renewal. The current language is said to allow annexing land at the city edge for affordable housing, 50-80% of area median income (AMI). (In Sonoma today, 80% AMI is $86,400 for a family of four— teachers, firemen, and other mid-level earners.)

But when a land-use attorney was consulted, their opinion was that the language of the current ordinance actually works to prevent this affordable-housing development. 

When non-profit developer Habitat for Humanity proposed a 62-unit project at 285 Napa Road that would serve people who make 80% AMI or less, the difficulties it faced reveal the weaknesses in current UGB language. 

To make the UGB ordinance friendlier for affordable housing, we propose the following changes: 

  • The current language limits expanding the UGB for affordable housing to 20 acres over 20 years, at the rate of no more than five acres a year. Habitat’s 285 Napa Road was all of 6.5 acres. As long as the amount does not exceed the total allowed, why not allow a small overage?
  • The provision that “the proposed development will consist of primarily low- and very low-income housing” may also be restrictive. The federal (HUD) definition of low-income housing is 80% AMI, while “very low-income” is 50% AMI, and “extremely low-come” is 30% AMI or less. (Habitat proposed 80% AMI and below.)

Since the current housing crisis leaves all of the area-median-income cohort burdened by housing costs, the language should be revised to make it possible to build housing for all levels of those who work in Sonoma, 100% AMI and down.  

  • We propose striking or substantially amending the requirement that there be “no existing vacant or undeveloped residentially-designated land within the UGB to accommodate the proposed development and it is not reasonably feasible to [do so] by re-designating lands within the UGB for low-and very low-income housing.” 

This could make for endless arguing about what “reasonably feasible” means and what constitutes “underdeveloped land.” Since a great many Sonoma lots have been built on over the last 20 years (most of them for “market-rate” housing), Habitat found no equivalent to 285 Napa Road within the UGB. 

  • One requirement should simply be struck — that “the proposed development is necessary to comply with state law requirements for the provision of low- and very low-income housing and the area of land within the proposed development will not exceed the minimum necessary to comply with state law.” 

In the middle of a major housing crisis, why would Sonoma want to limit affordable housing to the minimum the state requires? The current displacement rate of the AMI workforce, and the demographic imbalance of Sonoma to white and wealthy, calls for more than affordable-housing minimums.  

We hope these proposed language changes help start a discussion on how to make the next UGB ordinance friendlier and more flexible for the type of housing that Sonoma most needs.


Dave Ransom, chair, Sonoma Valley Housing Group. Dave Ransom lives in Santa Rosa and goes to church in Sonoma.

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