Achieving goals through planning
Published: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 22, 2013 at 4:19 p.m.
Petaluma's General Plan, adopted five years ago, clearly defines a variety of goals for future development and infrastructure aimed at ensuring that this city's quality of life is the best it can be. While desired improvements to city streets and parks continue to be a difficult challenge, many other city goals are in the process of being achieved that only a few years ago were thought to be unattainable.
Petalumans began witnessing an increasing amount of highway construction work which began with the East Washington interchange realignment and now encompasses the rebuilding of interchanges at the south and north ends of town, along with a massive retrofit of the Petaluma River bridge in anticipation of widening the highway to six lanes through the city.
While state transportation officials are mostly responsible for Highway 101 work, these projects are also spelled out in the “Mobility” section of the General Plan to ease the legendary highway traffic congestion and improve traffic flow and safety conditions on adjacent city streets.
Much of the funding for the long-awaited East Washington interchange work was made possible by traffic impact fees paid for by the Target-anchored shopping center development which opened its doors this summer, much to the delight of local residents who welcomed the many new opportunities to shop locally. Hundreds of Petaluma residents have secured jobs at the center's businesses, and millions of dollars in sales tax dollars are now coming in to help fund city services.
According to the General Plan's “Economic Health and Sustainability” section, the new shopping center was planned to provide tax revenues to fund city services, jobs for unemployed or under-employed residents and to serve longstanding unmet needs for goods and services. It's now doing exactly that.
Along with transportation improvements and economic development, the General Plan also includes housing goals that include providing a balance of affordable rental and ownership housing for all demographic segments in the community. Six years after the Great Recession stifled nearly all new housing development activity in Petaluma, signs of life are beginning to emerge in the housing market, much of it driven by a strongly increased demand for rental housing.
However, high demand for rentals, brought about by people losing their homes during the recession and joining the rental market, has combined with the general desirability of the area to create rents that many working individuals and families can no longer afford.
Indeed, the Santa Rosa-Petaluma metro area last year ranked as the 24th least affordable market nationwide, according to a study by the National Association of Homebuilders and Wells Fargo Bank. The disproportionately high prices mean that low-to-medium wage earners who make enough to be above the cutoff for most subsidized housing are finding themselves priced out of market-rate homes.
A city survey conducted earlier this year of Petaluma's 30 larger apartment complexes showed that the apartments' vacancy rate is less than 3 percent, which city officials called an “unhealthy” number because it tends to drive rental costs beyond what many people can afford to pay.
To address this problem, the Planning Commission last week approved a 144-unit apartment complex on Maria Drive, the first large-scale apartment complex to be proposed here in many years.
But new housing developments can be extremely controversial. The aforementioned apartment proposal drew a standing room only crowd of neighbors passionately opposed to the project they believed would ruin their neighborhood.
Before anyone starts accusing city officials of paving over paradise and being in the pockets of developers, familiar themes in some local political camps, some historic perspective is in order.
When runaway growth overtook the city 40 years ago, Petaluma set the nationwide legal standard for residential growth control. Following a decade in which the city's population nearly doubled, voters adopted a firm cap limiting home building to no more than 500 units in any given year which, in 1972, was about half the number of homes built in Petaluma the previous year. Development interests promptly filed suit against the city and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the city's constitutional right to limit the rate of new development.
Four decades later, Petaluma's reputation for carefully managed growth remains firmly intact. We have an urban growth boundary and a strong commitment to city-centered “smart” growth. Far from the 500-unit limit adopted in 1972, Petaluma over the last 15 years has been adding an average of less than 175 housing units per year, hovering at an average annual increase below 1 percent.
As the economy continues to strengthen, additional housing and commercial projects are going to be proposed for Petaluma properties specifically designated and zoned for such developments. And while some people would prefer that those properties remain undeveloped in perpetuity, city officials are charged with evaluating such building applications on their merits using the principles and guidelines of the General Plan and zoning code.
The City Council and Planning Commission are currently populated mostly by people who can make such decisions intelligently and without undue bias. That's essential if the city is to achieve its General Plan goals.
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