Community Matters: An ideal land use compromise

Rejecting this housing proposal would jettison any Putnam Park expansion plans as well.|

It’s common for people living nearby vacant property zoned for future housing development to raise their voices in opposition when a building project is proposed. It’s quite natural for residents to want their neighborhood to remain just the way it was when they first arrived.

Even well-planned developments will usually increase traffic and noise while lessening precious open space. So, people object. This very familiar Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome has played a very major role in Petaluma city politics and land use planning decisions for the last few decades.

There are also many times when legitimate public input is welcome and wholly beneficial to identify and mitigate unforeseen project impacts on neighbors and nature.

Partly in response to public disputes over proposed housing and commercial developments in Petaluma, two camps of elected officials have emerged. One is characterized by a willingness to accommodate a new development provided it aligns with the city’s strict zoning codes and related policies. The second group tends to share an innate aversion to development of any kind—often despite concessions from developers genuinely seeking to make a project fully compliant--and can always find a reason to reject it.

For the first group, compromise is sometimes worth pursuing. For the second group, compromise is generally anathema.

One housing development project that’s undergone an unprecedented 18 years of passionate public debate and extensive redesigns is about to test the Petaluma City Council’s willingness to adopt a reasonable compromise gift-wrapped by a local citizens group. This should be easy given that the project’s current iteration offers enormous and overriding community benefits.

Still, stubborn opposition to building any housing on the site continues and nothing is certain.

The property in question is the 58-acre Scott Ranch off D Street near Helen Putnam Park that was zoned to allow up to 110 houses when it was purchased by Walnut Creek developer Davidon Homes in 2003. When Davidon proposed building a 93-home subdivision the following year, neighbors protested citing unacceptable traffic increases, the potential harm to Kelly Creek and the natural habitat of the threatened California red-legged frog as well as poor drainage and flooding issues.

Among the neighborhood opponents was Greg Colvin, a local attorney who joined the steering committee for a group that had quickly formed to protest the development.

Over the course of 13 years, Colvin and fellow project opponents were successful in convincing city officials to reject the original project as well as a scaled-back 66-lot version.

Immediately following the city’s 2017 veto of the smaller project, Colvin saw an opportunity to forge a unique land use compromise that could benefit the entire community. He spearheaded the formation of the Kelly Creek Protection Project and began negotiating directly with Davidon on a deal aimed at securing a very large piece of land to expand the adjoining Helen Putnam Park while significantly reducing the housing project’s size.

Colvin and his associates pursued two purchase-and-sale options. The first assumed the group could raise $4.1 million in community donations to buy down much of the land’s development potential and thereby permanently protect the 44 most sensitive acres. Just 28 homes would be built on the remaining acreage, the fewest units allowed under the city’s zoning law. The second option was far more ambitious: If KCPP could raise $11 million, they would purchase the entire 58 acres and conserve it as parkland.

By December of 2018, KCPP had successfully raised the required $4.1 million from hundreds of local donors which included a $1 million matching grant from Sonoma County’s Agriculture and Open Space District. An agreement was signed to proceed with the park expansion and small home subdivision pending successful city approval of site plans and environmental impact reviews.

In subsequent meetings, Davidon agreed to further reduce the home and lot sizes, limiting the total housing footprint to just 6.4 acres and adding an additional 5 acres of private open space. All homes would feature solar panels, electric vehicle chargers and tankless water heaters to lessen energy use.

The final project iteration, sensibly approved by the city’s planning commission in August, would permanently protect nearly 90% of the property with a total of 47 acres dedicated to expanding Helen Putnam Park and creating a gateway on D Street that will make the park more easily accessible to all Petalumans.

The project includes new bicycle lanes and multi-use pathways, as well as a traffic circle and crosswalks on D Street to slow traffic speeds and increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

Die-hard project opponents, meanwhile, are continuing to promote a policy of “zero homes” on the land and some council members are sympathetic to such pleas.

But because the property is zoned for residential development, any attempt to officially disallow any housing on the parcel would surely trigger a lawsuit against the city for having unconstitutionally denied the property owner its right to earn a reasonable economic return on the investment.

A rejection of the revised housing proposal would, of course, also jettison any park expansion plans.

It’s unknown exactly when a hearing will be scheduled to decide the project’s fate. But when it occurs, city leaders should at least recognize the considerable work of Greg Colvin and the members of the Kelly Creek Protection Project for serving up an ideal land use compromise with the potential to greatly benefit the Petaluma community.

(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at

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