The year 2019, now dripping backwards into our history under rainy skies, included two historical bookends towards its beginning and end, with a series of landmark changes witnessed in between to Healdsburg’s landscape and ongoing developments.

The bookends were a record February flood and October’s Kincade Fire. Landmarks were changed at both ends of town with the Mill District project at the south and the approved North Entry Area Plan (NEAP) to the north. At the town’s center, the contentious debate over the 231-seat The Matheson restaurant project brought out defenders of the town’s Plaza ambience on one side and supporters of home grown enterprise on the other. (The city council-approved project is now under construction.)

Elsewhere in the life of Healdsburg during 2019, motorists and pedestrians were getting acclimated to the traffic roundabout, which was officially dedicated at the very end of 2018. Prep football returned to Healdsburg High School after a year’s hiatus in 2018 due to a lack of healthy players. The giant hammer sculpture was made whole again with a new 21-foot-long redwood handle after it had been stolen from the Foss Creek community center lawn many months before. A new executive director was welcomed at the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce in August, several notable obituaries were reported and just last week the mayor’s gavel was passed from David Hagele to Leah Gold.

Atmospheric river

On Feb. 27, the Russian River crested at 26 feet at Healdsburg’s Memorial Bridge, four feet above official flood stage. The city of Healdsburg was left with flood damage estimated around $2 million, according to Healdsburg Police Lt. Matt Jenkins, interviewed at that time. 

The city’s water treatment facility and parks bore the brunt of numerous damages, such as downed plant pumps, trees and fences, while homes and businesses largely remained unscathed after bulking up with sandbags. 

In addition, the water treatment facility’s pumps and motors, multiple electronic sensors, controllers and electrical panels were damaged. To get the treatment plant up and running as soon as possible new motors were ordered and were installed by crews four days later.

Venado, the wettest area of Sonoma County and due west of Healdsburg measured 20.79 inches of rain in just 48 hours. Guerneville, 18 miles down river from Healdsburg, was officially declared an “island” by the county sheriff as the river crested there at 45.31 feet. It was the second highest flood in history. (The all-time record for the Russian River exceeding its banks is 49.5 feet in February 1986.)

First rain, then fire

How much influence ongoing climate changes had on the February rain levels was less clear than the more certain climate emergency impacts that encircled post mortems of the Oct. 23 Kincade Fire. 

The lack of late summer and early autumn rains left Sonoma County’s open rural spaces arid and parched. Historic wind gusts topping 100 mph on the higher peaks of the Mayacamas Range quickly pushed sparks and flames from the area of a damaged PG&E transmission line near The Geysers to the east, threatening Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor and parts of the Mark West Creek watershed east of Santa Rosa that had just burned in the Tubbs Fire of 2017.

Two days after the wildfire ignited, county sheriff Mark Essick called for eventual evacuation of 180,000 Sonoma County residents, including all of Healdsburg. PG&E completed its planned Public Safety Power Shutoff to 2 million customers statewide, darkening Healdsburg on Saturday afternoon, Oct. 26. Local pubic safety and fire officials praised the local residents for an orderly and uneventful evacuation where virtually all of Healdsburg’s 11,000 residents cleared the threatened region within just four hours. Left behind, however, were hundreds of local businesses without electricity to keep their fermenting wines cool economic damages is still not finalized as insurance claims are being processed.

The Kincade Fire burned 77,778 acres and threatened over 90,000 structures before its containment 14 days after. There were no fatalities and only very minor injuries to a few firefighters.

A very close call

In a post-fire interview with The Tribune, Healdsburg Fire Chief Jason Boaz said the Kincade inferno came “within a mile or two on the south end of town” at Bailache Avenue and Toyon Drive. The fire had advanced across portions of Alexander Valley and prediction models looked very scary. 

“The original models I saw showed it coming directly kind of out of northeast right towards Healdsburg and Fitch Mountain,” Boaz said. “The models actually had it going all the way across Highway 101 and all the way to the ocean.”

Fortunately, a large strike force of firefighters were on the ground and very large air tankers and helicopters were able to drop tons or retardant on the advancing flames on Sunday, Oct. 27 to stop the fire from crossing Bailache.

In his final analysis, Boaz said the biggest safety factor was the wholesale evacuation of Healdsburg and the surrounding communities. 

“There is no question in my mind that had we not evacuated the city of Healdsburg and the town of Windsor that the outcome would have been a lot different,” he said.

Municipal movements

Following almost a decade of urban planning and citizen input, the 208-unit Mill District mixed use project was approved on the former NuForest Lumber Mill site at the southern entrance to the city. With most demolition now completed, work will begin later in 2020. The 9.5 acre site will include a 53-room luxury hotel, new retail affordable and mixed-price housing geared for local workers and families and generous open and green spaces fronting the nearby rail line and river front. The project is being led by Replay Destinations with offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, Scottsdale Arizona and Hawaii. Full build-out of the Mill District is not expected until 2031.

During the many years of planning hearings and city council sessions, there was much “pushing and pulling” on eventual unit totals, designs, street frontage elements and the project’s potential economic benefits and impacts to the community. At one point, Vice Mayor Leah Gold (now mayor), said the site was a missed opportunity in several ways. She said she hoped the city “will do better” on future projects. She said final points in the development agreement did not include several of the collected public’s suggestions and opinions.

Up north

The North Entry Area Plan (NEAP) was approved by the city council in May. It includes a 130 unit hotel and 200 residential units of mixed costs on 18 acres owned by Southern California-based Comstock Healdsburg LLC. (The site is the former Boise Cascade lumber facility.)

The project concept was approved by the city council on May 20. In August, California River Watch filed a lawsuit claiming the project’s Environmental Impact Report was insufficient. A final court ruling is pending.

Meanwhile, directly adjacent to the North Healdsburg Avenue location, site work continues on the Montage (Saggio Hills) companion project. The two major urban additions to Healdsburg’s environs were closely aligned by city planning to form a new northern entrance to the city.

The Montage project is much larger, including 258 acres, just north of the Parkland Farms residential community. It provides for a development of a 130-unit resort hotel, 70 resort residences, a community park, public and private open space and trails, a pump station and a city fire substation.

Healdsburg 2040

The Mill District, Montage and NEAP expansions to Healdsburg’s development footprint will continue to be watched and commented on by community members of the Healdsburg 2040 citizens organization. Born from the 2018 Sustainable Design Assessment Team visit of American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Healdsburg 2040 teams have been attempting to coordinate their long-term community visions with official city government policies and strategies.

 During 2020, some of these focuses will continue to be about worker housing, arts and culture opportunities, parks and pedestrian and neighborhood “connectivity” opportunities. The Healdsburg 2040 Stratgetic Initiatives and Goals for 

2020-25 are viewable at healdsburg2040.org.

GMO Vote in March

One topic of interest to Healdsburg 2040 members and others will be the March vote on affirmation or possible changes to the city’s Growth Management Ordinance (GMO). In October, Housing Administrator Stephen Sotomayor presented a variety of options to change the GMO. They included making for sale units subject to the GMO, using a percentage to split for sale and for rent units, eliminating the GMO or keeping as is. These could possibly increase the amount of income-restricted units, Sotomayor said.

The draft ballot language currently reads: “Shall the city of Healdsburg Growth Management Ordinance be amended to permit the currently allowed average of 50 units per year of multifamily, income-restricted rental housing as authorized by the voters in 2018 also be offered for sale?”

Final certification by the Registrar of Voters has not been forwarded to the city at this time, but is viewed as not likely to change.

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