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Build 1,200 new homes on county land? Not so fast


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Sonoma County wants to transform three large taxpayer-owned properties in Santa Rosa into new housing, with plans calling for as many as 1,200 units, a surge of supply in even greater demand after the destruction wrought by last year’s wildfires.

But with each of the county properties, which are either vacant or in need of improvements, the goals of government and developers have proven elusive, slowing the creation of new housing at a critical time, after nearly 5,300 homes were lost in the county in October’s fires.

The Board of Supervisors earlier this year floated a goal to add 30,000 housing units countywide over the next five years — a number county officials said would be needed to keep the local economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families. But that lofty goal could remain far out of reach if government-spearheaded projects can’t break ground.

“These seem like they should be low-hanging fruit in terms of projects,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes two of the three sites. “Quite frankly, it feels like it should be easier than this, and it feels like it shouldn’t involve quite so many iterations of the process.”

The largest of three developments, and Santa Rosa’s largest single housing proposal in years — about 870 units, mostly apartments, on county-owned land off Chanate Road — faces a stiff legal challenge from neighbors and other opponents that could stall the project.

Across town, on West College Avenue, a developer’s objections over the sale of another county-owned property for housing have already postponed a deal that could deliver about 145 units.

And on Sebastopol Road in Roseland, a long-awaited redevelopment effort promising 175 apartments has been bogged down by a conflict tied to a large homeless camp now on site, plus issues arising from Roseland’s annexation into the city and financing difficulties.

The lengthy process required to launch the three proposed developments, all of them years in the making, has frustrated county officials and developers at a time when residents are pushing for speedy replacement of thousands of desperately needed homes.

Together, the three properties could supply nearly as many housing units as have been constructed in Santa Rosa in the past five years. But the difficulties faced by each site raise questions about how large a role the county’s properties can play in meeting the deep regional need.

The obstacles are forcing county and city officials to mull other ways to spur development, by clearing some permit requirements and easing the path for denser housing projects in particular areas.

“Every single project, taken by itself, will have what appear to be legitimate reasons why there ought to be extensive public review,” said Larry Florin, chief executive of the local affordable housing company Burbank Housing, which is involved in part of the planned housing on Chanate Road. “Whether it’s the impact on the neighbors, whether it’s the impact on some endangered species, whether it’s sound, light — you name whatever proxy is used to try and slow down a project ... But in a housing crisis, it can’t be business as usual.”

Court challenge

Local officials have for several years viewed the Chanate Road property, site of the former county hospital complex, as a prime opportunity to create a large number of new housing units. Nearly three years after Sutter Health moved out of the site, supervisors last summer agreed to sell 82 acres of the sprawling campus — which spans 117 acres in total — to local developer Bill Gallaher.

Gallaher’s plan now calls for a potential 867 housing units, about 162 of which would be affordable for a four-member family making no more than $44,050 per year, according to a document his team recently filed with the city. About 260 of the units would be senior apartments and 50 to 60 would be for veterans. Also now planned for the site is a smaller-scale Oliver’s Market grocery store, an amphitheater and 2 miles of multi-use trails.

“This will be quite a large project for Santa Rosa,” said Clare Hartman, the city’s deputy planning director.

Plans for the property are in the early stages of the city’s planning process, even as a lawsuit from neighbors is challenging the county’s sale. Critics believe supervisors didn’t consider enough public input before moving forward with the sale agreement last year, and have also raised concerns about the sales price, the need for more environmental review and traffic impacts, among other issues.

“There are two issues that people always bring up: One is traffic and the second is why did they give that property away?” said Ken Howe, a longtime El Dorado Court resident who is involved with the lawsuit. “No one ever mentioned not to build, not to develop. Something has to go there. We just want it to be a reasonable, thought-out and environmentally safe thing to do.”

Gallaher agreed to pay at least $6 million for the property, with the price rising for each unit he is allowed to build beyond 400, for a maximum sticker price of $11.5 million. Critics say the property is worth far higher, but the county insists the value to the public of the deal is ultimately more than six times the cash price when considering the development cost of the affordable units and the maintenance and demolition costs the county will avoid by selling the property, among other factors.

Gallaher and Komron Shahhosseini, his project manager for the Chanate development, declined to comment last week. Tina Wallis, a Santa Rosa attorney representing Gallaher in the lawsuit did not respond to a pair of phone calls and an email.

“It’s really unfortunate to me, and it really saddens me, that this group of Chanate neighbors is trying to hinder and slow the process, because now more than ever, we need the housing,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the area. “People can’t afford to live here.”

A trial in Sonoma County Superior Court for the Chanate lawsuit is scheduled for July 20. Neighbors included in the suit, organized under the group called Friends of Chanate, believe the plans should not proceed through the city’s planning process until the legal challenge is resolved, Howe said. If they’re successful in court, the county could be required to revisit the sale.

“I’m sorry if it slows down the process, but it’s a public process that is required in these cases,” said Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa attorney and former state legislator who represents Friends of Chanate. “It doesn’t serve the public’s interest to cut the public out.”

Assistant County Counsel Bob Pittman said he expects county officials to prevail in court, saying the county only agreed to a property sale with “some hooks” to ensure it gets “the deal that was presented to us.” The specifics of the project are ultimately under the city’s purview, he said.

Even if the neighbors’ lawsuit fails to slow the process down, however, it will likely take a couple of years before the project on Chanate Road is complete, according to Hartman.

“It’s quite a complex property,” she said. “Their proposal is also very diverse in terms of different land uses and preserving quite a bit of the property.”

Another round for bids

The former headquarters of the Sonoma County Water Agency on West College Avenue has been vacant for about four years. It is close to bus stops, a public pool, a community center and city parks, making it an ideal spot for new housing in the eyes of county officials.

“That is such a fantastic location, especially for families,” said Hopkins, who represents the area. “It’s frustrating that it’s taken so long. And yet I’m hopeful and I’m optimistic.”

The county’s Community Development Commission bought the land from the Water Agency last year, intending to sell it again to a housing developer.

Commission officials sought development proposals and in early February were prepared to ask county supervisors to sell the 7.5-acre site for $4.2 million to USA Properties, a Roseville-based developer which planned to build 144 units, 29 of them affordable. But the commission delayed the board vote until March and then ultimately asked supervisors to reject all bids and launch another request for proposals. That request isn’t expected to be released until sometime next month.

Fueling the delay was a protest from Oakmont Senior Living, Gallaher’s development company, which also submitted a proposal to build housing on the site. Wallis, the attorney representing Oakmont Senior Living, raised a number of objections in February letters to county officials, saying her client offered more money for the site and could house people faster. The company offered $300,000 over the bid by USA Properties, records show.

While the commission initially stood by its decision in a March 12 response letter to Wallis, officials eventually decided the best move was for supervisors to launch another request for proposals.

Margaret Van Vliet, the executive director of the development commission, said county leaders want to “get it right” with the West College property deal.

“We were not convinced that they could, in fact, get out of the ground faster,” Van Vliet said. “But, certainly, that’s one of the pieces we can nail down in the new procurements, is what do we want to look for in that, in sort of measuring what’s possible and realistic.”

Roseland Village slowed

The commission is also closely involved in the third major site where the county has long planned housing: the Roseland Village shopping center on Sebastopol Road.

About 7 acres the commission owns, including the site of the Dollar Tree store, would be transformed into a mixed-use development of 175 apartments — 75 of which would be below market rate — along with a public plaza and storefronts.

Even before the county’s former redevelopment agency bought the property in 2010, officials wanted to put new housing there. But the plans have faced numerous obstacles over the years, including the recession, difficulties piecing together all the necessary financing and environmental cleanup requirements.

After Santa Rosa annexed Roseland last year, county leaders learned that plans from Foster City-based MidPen Housing would be required to conform to city roadwork requirements — at far higher cost than what the original designs called for, according to commission staff.

“You can get surprised even if it’s not an annexation thing. I don’t want to blame too much of it on that,” Van Vliet said. “My bigger issue is it has created a bigger hole in the development budget that still needs to be filled.”

The latest hurdle is a county-sanctioned homeless encampment that now numbers about 100 people.

Homeless people have lived behind the Dollar Tree since 2015, but their numbers swelled in the wake of October wildfires and city efforts to clear out homeless encampments that cropped up in downtown underpasses along Highway 101.

County officials recently moved to shut down the Roseland encampment and get everyone living there into shelter or long-term housing. Homeless residents were supposed to be gone by April 3, but attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of five encampment residents and the activist group Homeless Action.

A U.S. District Court judge in San Francisco ultimately denied a request for a halt of the planned camp closure. The new county eviction deadline is April 19.

Advocates have said they will work to get the remaining homeless residents assessed for shelter or long-term housing placement. Yet they remain worried about whether the county has sufficient resources available to meet the needs of everyone living behind the Dollar Tree, particularly those with disabilities.

Kathleen Finigan, a member of Homeless Action, said advocates are broadly supportive of the Roseland Village housing plans.

“Everybody’s looking forward to that. It’s a good project,” Finigan said. “But that doesn’t solve anybody’s problem as to where they can go on April 19 when the cops come to kick them out. Nobody’s addressing the problem directly and nobody’s applying any kind of creative thinking to look at other possibilities.”

‘Fundamental change’

The three projects are by no means a panacea for the region’s housing crisis, officials acknowledge, but represent the county’s strong commitment to help address the shortfall.

Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, said he is “dead serious” about attempting to meet the Board of Supervisors’ ambitious five-year goal to add 30,000 housing units — equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol.

To reach that goal, the county is trying a number of strategies to maximize the amount of new housing in unincorporated areas outside city limits.

Wick pointed to a burned-down apartment complex on Old Redwood Highway that will be connected to sewer service when it’s rebuilt, which allows for more units. What was once a 70-unit apartment complex will become a 96-unit complex, he said.

“That is a fundamental change in the relationship — really looking at more of a partnership between public officials and builders and businesses,” Wick said. “We can still protect the public interest while we facilitate more housing.”

The county Planning Commission on Thursday approved a package of housing rules aimed at expanding opportunities for granny units, mixed residential and commercial projects and low-income single-room rentals. Supervisors are expected to consider the package in May.

Additionally, Wick said county planning officials are looking at ways to reduce some of the public review requirements for housing in certain areas. The county also wants to promote more farmworker housing, he said.

Santa Rosa city leaders are taking a close look at their efforts to build more housing units, too — all of which could come more clearly into focus during a joint April 24 meeting of the City Council and city Planning Commission.

While the county’s three sites could create a major influx of new units were they all to come to market quickly, Hartman said the faster and surer route for developers is to build in downtown Santa Rosa, a location city leaders are trying to promote for housing expansion.

“We already have a downtown plan that supports high-density housing, so the environmental review has already been done, the public policy for that type of high density and intensity has already been done,” Hartman said. “The quickest way to get the number of units that we need is to build downtown.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337.