County cancels deal for 867 new housing units in Santa Rosa

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Sonoma County supervisors unanimously decided Tuesday to unwind their sale of a sprawling northeast Santa Rosa property where a developer wanted to build 867 housing units, opting to scrap the controversial plan they backed last year and put the site back on the market.

The vote puts an end to developer Bill Gallaher’s vision to transform 82 acres off Chanate Road, where the old county hospital complex is located, into what would have been one of the city’s largest single housing projects in recent memory.

The Board of Supervisors had to take up the matter Tuesday because it chose not to appeal a July ruling from a Superior Court judge, who said the county incorrectly decided the sale agreement with Gallaher was exempt from state environmental review requirements.

Rather than reworking the deal with Gallaher’s team to comply with the judge’s ruling, supervisors instead directed county staff members to go back to the drawing board by offering most of the property for sale again.

“Make it a wide net so that we can have some good options,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the Chanate Road property. “Times have changed, and so we do need to give us as much flexibility as possible.”

State law requires the county to first offer the property for sale to certain government agencies and qualified nonprofits.

Supervisors will give those groups the option to purchase the site, which is comprised of 13 separate parcels, either in its entirety or in smaller pieces. Staff members expect to return to the board with more specific language before the end of November, a county spokeswoman said after the meeting.

The new sale process will exclude a nearly 10-acre portion of the site that features a beloved grassy meadow neighbors have long understood to be part of an open space preserve. County staff members will return at a later date with options for permanently protecting the meadow, since the deal with Gallaher would have required his team to secure a conservation easement there.

Gallaher wanted to build a mix of housing types on the vast Chanate Road property, including rental apartment buildings three or four stories tall, along with a series of other amenities such as a dog park, amphitheater, grocery store and trails.

County officials touted the deal as a unique way to use public property to help alleviate the severe regional housing shortage. But many neighbors have been consistently opposed to the plans, voicing strong objections about the possibility of introducing hundreds of new residents to the mostly two-lane Chanate Road area. Those concerns, among others, prompted residents organized under the name Friends of Chanate to successfully sue the county.

Tina Wallis, a Santa Rosa attorney who represented Gallaher in court, declined to comment when reached by phone after Tuesday’s vote.

The October 2017 wildfires proved a major factor in the public discussion.

“We have one way out of our community: It’s onto Chanate Road,” Joseph Zils, president of a homeowners’ association representing 92 homes in the area, told supervisors. “The plan that was proposed earlier was totally inadequate to address the types of emergencies we were faced with on Oct. 8 and 9.”

Zane, meanwhile, said fire survivors in the county are “really sensitive” to supervisors investing any resources that could detract from the disaster recovery — the primary reason the county has cited for not appealing the court ruling against it.

It’s not clear how the new sale process will affect the kind of housing imagined for the Chanate Road property. But Joanne Thomas, a longtime neighbor of the site, said she and others who live in the area would prefer only single-family homes are developed there.

“We don’t want to see three- and four-story apartment houses,” Thomas told supervisors. “We want something that fits with our community. ... We want something safe and reasonable.”

That argument provoked an impassioned response from Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who later said she was “incredibly depressed and actually appalled” by some residents’ insistence on building only single-family homes at the site.

Such limited development would put the development out of reach for young people, government workers and other people who can’t afford to buy a home in Sonoma County, Hopkins said.

“Single-family homes on large lots are really what’s wrong with this county,” Hopkins said. “It is totally legitimate to talk about the number of people that this site can hold, but I will just be very honest: I also lose respect for you when you say you are opposed to apartments, because apartments are all that some who live in this community can afford.”

Once supervisors grant their blessing to the language of the new sale offer, county staffers anticipate spending about 60 to 90 days investigating whether any public agencies or nonprofits are willing and able to develop the land.

If that process is unsuccessful — as was the case the last time around — supervisors could once again seek proposals from the private sector as they move toward an unrestricted and open sale of the property.

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