Posted on July 3, 2020 by Fred Allebach
The Sonoma urban growth boundary (UGB) renewal issue has been a long-running battle pitting fears of an amorphous and terrifying “sprawl” against the potential of obtaining land cheap enough to build an affordable housing project on.
The possible Habitat for Humanity project at 285 Napa Road served as a litmus test for UGB supporters to try and kill it, and for Affordable Housing advocates to try and make happen. It all came down to a few UGB ordinance language changes that either would or would not make projects such as 285 Napa Road likely.
UGB supporters clearly don’t want “growth” at the city edge, for any reason, even if it is for the social good of deed-restricted Affordable Housing. This is why Greenbelt Alliance and Citizens for the UGB fought to keep as many poison pills in the UGB language as possible, and why the Sonoma Valley Housing Group fought to take as many as possible out.
“Growth” and “sprawl” are 1980s fights; the issue now is equity and the fact that Sonoma is 87% white and wealthy. The issue is Sonoma owning its workforce and building Affordable Housing to get all the displaced people back; this is not “growth,” it’s equity, edge or not.
On 6/1/20, the city council voted unanimously to make certain language changes to the UGB ordinance that will go to the ballot in November. Of the changes, certain poison pills remained (a 4/5 vote requirement and a hard acreage provision that killed 285 Napa Road). However, and to their credit the council voted to take out some other poison pills, that only the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) minimum for Affordable Housing would be allowed, and that no vacant or underdeveloped land could still be available in the city. City staff indicated to me before 6/1 that they were under tremendous pressure to keep the no vacant land in the city clause. On 6/1, however, this clause stayed out and the council voted unanimously to keep it out.
Then, leading up to the 6/29 final vote on the UGB ordinance language, lo and behold, guess what was recommended by staff to put back in? The no vacant land in the city clause.
This “tremendous pressure” was anted up as the threat of a lawsuit, from “an environmental group,” most likely, in my opinion, Greenbelt Alliance, but possibly also the Sierra Club and California River Watch. This legal threat was not mentioned in the written city staff report. Thanks to the city attorney for letting this cat out of the bag at the 6/29 council meeting. The legal threat is this: the “environmental group” would sue the city on the basis that the UGB ordinance was too permissive, an onslaught of Affordable Housing projects might happen on the city edge, thus tipping the UGB to needing a new CEQA analysis.
This credible threat, likely by a well-heeled, non-membership enviro non-profit, put the fear in the city, and the council voted 4 to 1 to put that poison pill language back in.
The allegation by the “environmental group” was that the rate of building could exceed the intent of the 2000 UGB ordinance, and since the city was trying to slide this 2000 UGB by without needing to do any new CEQA, the council got spooked and voted to reinsert the “no available land in the city” clause, as a hedge against this threatened enviro suit.
My suspicion that UGB people would come back and try and get this clause put back was right. Only, they did it with a backroom threat, and not in any public comments written to the council, that the public could see. The hardball being played here was concealed. Greenbelt Alliance is fanatical about the UGB and has not wanted to cede one inch. Now they have got as much as they can for poison pills to frustrate any Affordable edge housing projects. Now we can proceed with nice, happy green fictions about how great Sonoma is, and how green our future will be.
Meanwhile, where are all the new Affordable projects in the city on West Napa Street? We can’t wait forever here.
Why didn’t the city just do a UGB CEQA analysis up front? If a UGB is known to heat up real estate prices, and Sonoma is already obscenely expensive for everything, where was the will to provide a relief valve, to see that the workforce might get housed somewhere in the city, at the edge, or in the city sphere of influence?
The cards here in Sonoma just plain don’t add up to a very forceful interest in Affordable Housing.
This, my friends, is the Green Checkmate. Greenbelt Alliance fights to protect every inch of dusty dogpatch land (rural character) at the edges, while low-density homeowners fight to protect their back yards from all but tasteful, market rate projects that won’t interfere with “small town character”, i.e., segregated, white, and wealthy. The only Affordable Housing in sight is the paltry inclusionary ordinance.
This UGB language poison pill obsession, and irrational fear of “sprawl” is all part of an effort to frustrate any building at the city edge, even though the consensus of the joint Council-Planning Commission meeting was to make such building easier. It’s clear that pro-UGB forces wanted as many poison pills in the UGB language as possible all along, and clear that the city (staff and council) did not have the will and backbone to make affordable housing more likely in a UGB ordinance.
Sprawl! Run! Oh my God! One dusty-ass patch of land at 285 Napa Road is “sprawl” and will destroy all nature! We can’t allow that! But what if small town character gets messed up by all the hoped-for high-density infill? The parking! The traffic! The congestion! Any which way you turn in this town there is paralysis.
Now, market rate developer DeNova Housing has sewn up about all available land in the city and in the sphere of influence. Don’t anyone hold their breath for a nice affordable project anywhere in Sonoma anytime soon. The Green Checkmate has about won. So much for “climate justice.” Yes, we know the pro UGB people are all for Affordable Housing, all for it, only under conditions that are impossible to meet. This pro-housing stance is a plausible fiction. The cold hard facts: poor people are expendable in the face of the climate crisis. One field is one too many to sacrifice so poor people might have an affordable place to live. The green dogma is that all poor people have to be packed like sardines on West Napa, near transit, to cut down on greenhouse gases, to save the planet.
Where are all these great, idealistic high-density infill projects in the city? Oh, the projects are all in the Springs? Oh, Springs neighbors and activists think the city should take more? Guess again, not going to happen. In the middle of a severe housing crisis, the city has no plan, just treading water, can’t chew gum, do cannabis, and have a few emergencies at the same time. The cost of land? Never mind that the “available and underdeveloped” land is way too much for any non-profit to afford. Never mind that DeNova is outbidding all on land anyway. It’s the perfect paralysis loop, every way out is plausibly denied, as a tide of unaffordable market rate housing comes in all around us. But, “we’re all for Affordable Housing.”
One thing people can do to register their disgust at this state of affairs, is to vote NO on the Sonoma UGB in November. Vote NO for 87% white, rich protectionism. NO on the UGB!
Amy Harrington came up with a good work-around to the no vacant land in the city poison pill: to put a clause in the Municipal Code that defines what “available” means, particularly in a situation with economic differentials, where for example a one-acre Affordable project is being looked at, but in town the one acre costs $1.5 million, and on the edge it costs $250,000. In this case, the council could make a finding that land in the city was not available. If an applicant passed that threshold (and assuming DeNova did not outbid them), then they would have to get past the 4/5 vote and the hard five acres per year cap. Good luck. Then the fight will be about what “underdeveloped land in the city” means. UGB fanaticism will brook no dissent.
What ever happened to making it easier to get Affordable Housing at the edge?
If there was really the will to write laws and code to make Affordable Housing more likely, why not be doing that now? Why not for the last five years? What is the city waiting for? The writing on the wall is that Sonoma just plain doesn’t care to act. It’s all too expensive to do the right thing. No one wants to rock the boat.
What we’ve seen here on this last gasp of UGB renewal language, is a backroom threat and deal, a chess move by an environmental group, to block off making the city edge a more flexible place to build Affordable Housing. This was aided and abetted by the city not doing anything on this CEQA question for two years, and now the clock has run out. Green Checkmate. Checkmate by NIMBYs, city staff, and by the council.
Very disheartening, especially when integration and being more equitable is called for from a town that is 87% white and mostly low density zoned.