Under the Sun: Interviews ~ Sonoma Valley Sun

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Under the Sun: Jennifer Gates, community development director

Posted on September 16, 2023 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The Sun’s Anna Pier sat down with the City of Sonoma’s Community Development Director to find out what she and the new department are all about.

You and your position are both new? 

I began June 22 in this position that the City Manager and the Council had created by combining two departments, Planning and Building. They gave it the title, Community Development Department. This is common in smaller cities. So I will oversee both divisions, following a project from when plans are submitted to the final inspection. The aim of creating a single department is to increase the communication between the two divisions. A clearer process from application through construction. And I like to identify processes that can be streamlined. To make the process clear from the beginning. 

Why did you want the position? 

When I read the position description, I thought: ‘This is me. This is my dream job.’

Can you explain? 

The combination of my education and my job history culminate in this position. It combines the things I love about planning, historic preservation, community engagement, and architecture. And add in the small town charm.

You have moved to Sonoma. 

I actually was already living here. I moved here in 2022 for my most recent job as Marin County Strategic Projects Manager. I’ve been living here in the City, but at the end of the month I’m moving to Boyes Springs. 

You started here on June 1.  Is it too soon to comment on the challenges you expect to face?  

Honestly, they are no different than most communities in California. It will be all about how we look to the future. The General Plan update will kick off in October. I am the Project Manager for what we foresee to be a two-year effort. I’ll coordinate the work of our Project Planner, Kristina Tierney, and the consultant. My goal is to have robust community engagement – listening to everyone on the future of Sonoma, from the senior citizens to the high school students.

First step?  

To set the broader policy, the vision. How does that look with regard to land use, transportation, equity, and cultural and natural resources? Families cannot afford to live here. We have to get creative on how to incentivize inclusionary housing. By incentivize, I mean the old carrot and stick, the carrot being funding, maybe reduced fees, and the stick being the codes requiring affordable housing.  

Did you buy your new home? 

No. On a single income that is not possible.

Some of your other responsibilities? 

I will give trainings for both staff and various commissions – Planning, Climate Action, Design Review. This evening I will present on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation. The training will focus on how this applies to Sonoma. I used to work for the California Historic Preservation Foundation, where I offered training as well. Education and community engagement are very important to me. 

How do you propose to get community engagement? 

I need to learn what this community’s way is. It is important to me to hear from all voices, all sectors. My experience says that partnering with various local organizations is important. To get people to participate who don’t usually. And my goal is to work as closely as possible with the County to incorporate community comment from the Valley. 

I detect a drawl. Where were you born? 

I’m a native Californian, born in Panorama City, in L.A. County. But I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Raleigh, North Carolina.  And I got my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. I began in Architecture, but switched to Environmental Design. Then I went directly to grad school at Penn (University of Pennsylvania), where I simultaneously did a dual program for a Master of Science in Historic Preservation and a Master of City Planning.

Where have you worked in planning and in preservation? 

Before Marin, I worked in planning in Encinitas, Laguna Beach, Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and San Clemente. In preservation, for the CA Historic Preservation Foundation in San Francisco. 

In your free time? 

Hiking, exploring. And I love to travel. Last year I went to Brazil and Argentina. I’m just back from a trip with friends to Lassen, Crater Lake, Burney Falls, and the Umpqua Forest. Next month I am going to Hawaii with my 94-year-old grandma and my aunt. That’s the only state my grandma hasn’t visited. I used to do lots of volunteering – for instance, for the historic walking tour of San Juan Capistrano. And I was a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer for children. And I have fostered dogs.

Where do you hike? 

SDC, the Regional Park, wherever I can take my two dogs. They are both rescues, Gatsby, a seven-year-old terrier mix, and Carnegie, a five-month-old shepherd mix.  

What was your childhood dream? 

Up till my sophomore year in high school I wanted to be a vet. But I switched to architecture.  My mother tells me I was always drawing houses and buildings I knew on grid paper, to scale. Before my senior year in college, I went to a summer program on historic preservation in Nantucket, and that’s where I learned about city planning.  



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