Local governments are struggling to find ways to increase the number of homes being built in west county — affordable homes in particular — but increasing the amount of housing stock in ways that don’t damage the environment or the character of the towns in which they’re built is a tall order.
Is Sebastopol on the verge of a housing boom?
Sebastopol is looking at its biggest building boom in more 30 years, with two large condominium/apartment projects in the works and several smaller housing developments. There are a couple of small developments in rural west county as well. Here’s an update on local development projects:
Gravenstein Village: The development firm City Ventures is hoping to build a large condominium complex, called Gravenstein Village, behind the O’Reilly complex at the north end of town. The most recent iteration of the plan, presented at a pre-development review meeting before the design review board in October, calls for 103 units in 18 two- and three-story buildings. All of the units would be all-electric and powered by solar panels on the roof; all of the garages would have chargers for electric vehicles and battery packs to store energy from the solar panels, along with other eco-friendly features.
At the meeting, neighbors complained about the height and scale of the project about to be plopped down on the other side of their backyard fences. Representatives from Ceres, a nonprofit that teaches teenagers to garden, cook and prepare meals for its seriously ill clients, also showed up to voice their concerns. They don’t want to see the Ceres Garden, a teaching and food garden located on one of the parcels that City Ventures would like to buy, plowed under for housing.
A City Ventures’ representative said the project is still in the very early stages of development. No definitive plans have yet been submitted to the city of Sebastopol.
Woodmark Apartments: Rumors have been swirling for months about the 84-unit apartment complex called Woodmark Apartments that Pacific Builders would like to build at 7716 and 7760 Bodega Avenue.
According to the developer, it will target families with incomes ranging between 30% and 60% of the area’s median income and will consist of 48 two-bedroom units at 749 square feet each and 36 three-bedroom units that will be approximately 1,080 square feet.
Labeled as workforce housing, the Woodmark development made its first appearance before Sebastopol’s Design Review Board on Dec. 18, and it was savaged.
One member captured the general opinion of the board with this statement:
“It’s a waste of our time even looking at these plans. Whatever is developed there — and I’m sure there will be something at some point — it’s not going to be this. Not if we have anything to say about it.”
Other sobriquets included “unimaginative,” “dull,” “arrogant” and the real zinger: “This would fit right in in the Central Valley.” Ouch.
A developer’s representative said they had a Plan B to bring back to the board — but the difference between what they presented and what the design review board wanted to see was so vast, it would require something more like a Plan Z.
The CKD developments. Long-time builder Chris Dluzak is still working on the seemingly endless construction project at Healdsburg Avenue and Murphy. When it’s completed it will be a single-family home and a mixed-use commercial space with two apartments. Both streets were torn up for several weeks at the end of the year as the water and sewer hook-ups were installed. Dluzak said he expects to finish the project by this coming April.
He’s also planning a new development for the adjacent property, involving two 100- space parking garages, 6,000 square feet of commercial space and a 40-plus apartment complex, which will tie in visually with his first development. He hopes to bring these plans to a pre-development meeting with the city in January.
“People need places where they can walk to town and this is a good location for that,” Dluzak said, noting that that section of Sebastopol also desperately needs parking.
Dan Davis Townhomes. Back in May, after a grueling three-hour public meting, Sebastopol City Council unanimously approved the Davis Townhome project, which consists of 18 two-story, 1,180 square-foot townhomes, set in three clusters, on a 1.74 acre lot south of the Morris Street and Sebastopol Avenue intersection. Designed by long-time Sebastopol architect Kathy Austin, the project is being built by Wright Construction and, according to Dan Davis, they expect to break ground this coming year.
Huntley Square: Located at 7950 Bodega Ave., this project of 10 tiny homes, is taking its time through Sebastopol’s development process. The development will include two buildings containing five housing units each, ranging from one to two stories, with a height of 22.8 feet at its highest elevation. Three floor plans are available, ranging from 516 feet to 599 feet. Each unit will have a private backyard and dedicated parking space and will sell from $400,000 to $455,000. At its meeting on Dec. 17, the city council seemed split on the charms of this project —Patrick Slayter, Sarah Glade Gurney and Una Glass appreciated this development as “forward thinking,” while Neysa Hinton and Michael Carnacchi were less enthusiastic. The three-person majority who like the project voted to forgo $69,550 in city fees as a way of easing the developer’s cost burden for putting in a sidewalk (estimated at $160,000) and undergrounding the utilities.
Housing for the Barlow: In July, Aldridge Development, the company that owns the Barlow, held a community meeting to discuss the potential for new residential development in and around the Barlow. A couple of buildings are under consideration for mixed-use (housing and commercial) development, including the 5,000 square feet building at 6790 Depot St., commonly referred to as The Foundry. The second building is an 18,000 square foot section of the Guayaki building located at 6782 Sebastopol Ave., which fronts McKinley Street. There is also the large vacant lot off of Morris Street, site of a former concrete plant, and a few vacant lots on Laguna Parkway.
“We are investigating a way to use a range of these properties to provide parking, housing and mixed-use buildings with residential above the first floor,” said the Barlow’s Vice President Justin Allamano.
It’s an interesting idea, but floating this plan so soon after the failure of the Barlow’s Flood Mitigation Plan during February’s inundation led to massive scoffing around town.
Hotel Sebastopol: This is not a housing project, but it’s one of the largest developments in Sebastopol. Though it made it through the city’s development process, the site has sat empty for so long that some in town have begun to wonder if the project has been abandoned. It hasn’t. According to a December update on the developer’s website, Piazza Hospitality is planning on breaking ground in spring of this year.
“As a project update, we remain fully committed to the Hotel Sebastopol project,” the update reads. “Our team anticipates the building permit being ready for pickup by the end of the year, though we will likely wait until spring 2020 for groundbreaking to allow time for the bid process, general contractor interviews and the weather to improve.”
Green Valley Village: Orrin Thiessen, the man who created Graton’s quaint downtown and built the Windsor Town Green development, has a small project nearing completion in Graton. Of the 10 houses in the Green Valley Village development, eight belong to Thiessen, and two are affordable housing units that are being built by Habitat for Humanity.
The dual crises of affordable housing and homelessness
Sonoma County’s lack of affordable housing and the ever-present problem of homelessness are intimately connected. Here’s a round up of what’s been happening this year in west county in connection with these twin crises:
Granny units: The city of Sebastopol loosened its requirements for building granny units in December to comply with new state legislation aimed at developing more affordable housing. The county of Sonoma is working on doing the same. The new state rules required local governments to 1) remove requirements to provide parking for granny units; 2) lower setbacks for single-story granny units to 4 feet; and 3) allow owners of multi-family properties to convert a percentage of garage space and storage space into new apartments.
Housing Choice vouchers: Formerly known as Section 8, the Housing Choice Voucher program in Sonoma County underwent a dramatic change this year. In July, the Community Development Commission (CDC) scrapped its 26,000-person waiting list, on which some people had languished for more than 10 years, and replaced it with a lottery system. Five hundred people were chosen in a lottery in July and placed on a new waiting list. A new lottery will be held when those 500 people have been housed; the agency estimates this will take two years.
In December, the CDC held a community meeting to add several new preference categories to its waiting list. Originally, preferences for vouchers was going to be given to people with disabilities and seniors (62 and older). At a meeting in December, the CDC considered adding the following preference groups: victims of declared natural disasters and families who currently receive rental assistance but who’s rental assistance has been terminated due to lack of funding. In addition, the CDC is considering setting aside 36 Housing Choice vouchers for families “engaged in homeless assistance programs within the county of Sonoma.”
Vacation rental moratorium: In May, an applicant in Sebastopol who wanted to rent out a house on Johnson Street as a vacation rental through Airbnb was approved by the planning commission, but turned down by the city council, which, feeling protective of Sebastopol’s limited housing stock, decided to take another look at its vacation rental policies. In August the city council put a 45-day moratorium on vacation homes that are rented out more than 30 days a year, and in early September, the council voted unanimously to make that moratorium permanent. It also hired a firm to catch those who operate illegal (which is to say, unlicensed) short-term rental properties within the city limits.
Homelessness on Morris Street and beyond: The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided in Martin v. Boise that the homeless have a right to sleep outside on public property unless municipalities can offer them a better alternative, but for most of Sonoma County’s homeless population, sleeping rough feels less like a right and more like a curse
This year’s annual homeless count showed that the population of homeless people in Sebastopol rose dramatically in 2019: up from 69 in 2018 to 101 in 2019. (For unincorporated west county, the number edged downward ever so slightly from 214 in 2018 to 211 in 2019.) The rise in homelessness in Sebastopol was evident on the streets of town, especially in the increasing number of people living in RVs, not only on Morris Street — the city’s unofficial sacrifice zone — but in the neighborhoods around downtown.
Neighbors from the eastern spur of Palm Avenue took their complaints about the homeless living on their street to the city council to September. They reported having to regularly clean up human waste and trash from their yards and the street. Then there were the psychological pressures: residents reported being yelled at by mentally ill transients and the feeling of intimidation caused by unknown people loitering on the street.
“It used to feel very safe in our little cul de sac, but it’s definitely turned a corner,” neighbor Rebecca Hochmann said. “I am not unsympathetic to the needs of these people, but it’s become more of an issue.”
A heightened police presence discouraged some of the newcomers, but residents say many of these have drifted back in the months since their protest.
Aiding the unsheltered: The increased visibility of the homeless in Sebastopol is nothing compared to the visibility of the homeless village on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa, which now stretches from Fulton to Stony Point up the bike trail. In December, the Board of Supervisors declared a “homeless emergency” and allotted $12 million to help solve the problem.
In mid-November, two Sebastopol sisters, Rochelle and Jillian Roberts, started a Facebook group called Sonoma County Acts of Kindness to help the homeless on the trail with food, clothing, tents and anything else they need. Within three days, they had 300 members. Their Facebook group now has more than 2,100 members, and a steady stream of volunteers from the group regularly trek down to the Joe Rodota Trail to deliver food, coats, pallets to raise tents off the wet ground and moral support.
Here in town, Sebastopol resident Harry Bergbauer formed what he calls The Circle of Gratitude and Stone Soup, serving vegetarian soups and stews to anyone who wants to join him at the circular Occupy Bench in the plaza, homed and homeless alike. He started in April and has continued to do this every Tuesday evening. A few months ago a local merchant complained about the fact that Bergbauer wasn’t licensed to serve food, and his supporters worried he’d have to stop, but the city appears to have given him a pass while they figure out how to get him licensed.