Nine years after the project was launched, the self-described “ultra-luxury resort” Montage plans to welcome its first guests on Dec. 19. Rooms are available for $695 to $945, or you can book a $1,995 suite with “views of the surrounding mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows.” Luxury in the wine country has its price, but there is more at stake than just money.

On June 30, the developer proposed a third amendment to the Development Agreement (DA), which they need the city to agree to, before opening the resort. The demands are extraordinarily far reaching, including a proposal to convert the 14 acres set aside  for affordable housing to an “open space,” which would make it nearly impossible for the city to build enough much-needed affordable housing units in the foreseeable future.

Under the proposed amendments, among other things, Montage would no longer:

° Transfer title to City for the 14 acres on their property reserved for affordable housing;

° Grade the site for a new public park, nor build an agreed public trail through vineyards;

° Build a public road to connect Passalacqua Road and Parkland Farms Boulevard;

° Build a new fire substation.

These are all things they had agreed to do — before opening the resort. In exchange for being relieved of these "community benefit obligations,” Montage wants to pay the city a lump sum of $7,250,000, which is three-times less than what these concessions are truly worth.

It might be tempting to accept a nice check (if it were closer to true value), since the coffers of the city have been depleted by the pandemic, the fires and the resulting economic downturn. But the requested DA modifications are not simply a question of money. Rather, it is a question of the common good, of equity, and of following through on promises made.

Many young families and people working in Healdsburg are priced out of the local housing market. If we don’t want to become solely a luxury resort town, but rather preserve the small-town charm, we need to build 500 to 600 affordable housing units in the next 10 years. The Montage site could support 70 “middle income” homes, at a price point of around $500,000 (or less), a product that is sorely missing in the current market. To achieve our collective affordable housing goal, the 14-acre Montage site is truly priceless. There is simply no other site currently available and shovel-ready, where an affordable housing project of this scale could be realized.

The city should therefore stand firm on using this land for affordable housing. The DA negotiations present a unique opportunity for the city to dedicate the land to homes for the “missing middle,” rather than its originally foreseen use for lower-income housing, which we have since learned may not be commercially viable on this site.

Affordable housing is not the only part of the DA where the developer wants to pay cash in lieu of following through on obligations. Another example is that Montage just wants to build a one-lane Emergency Vehicle Access (EVA) road not open to the public instead of  a public road to connect Parkland Farms Blvd. with Passalacqua Road. For residents of Parkland Farms, public access to this road is important from both a safety and a connectivity perspective. In the case of a fire they don't want to be trapped with only one way out via Parkland Farms Boulevard. At a bare minimum, the city should require the developer to 1) build at least the EVA connection, 2) make it fully accessible for public bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and 3) pay an in lieu fee sufficient to cover the full future costs that the city would incur to build a public access road at a later time.

It is unfortunate for both Montage and the city that these private and public benefit projects have been delayed because of the fires last year, the pandemic and the economic downturn. At this point both sides have an interest in moving forward expeditiously — but not at any cost. The citizens’ group Healdsburg 2040 is optimistic that the city and Montage will be able to fine-tune the DA, while preserving the priceless affordable housing site, and ensuring that safety infrastructure and public amenities are completed soon, without unfairly transferring the risks and costs to the city and taxpayers.

Healdsburg 2040 is a group of interested citizens advising the city on the implementation of the SDAT report. The group is made up of four individual work groups, addressing arts and culture, housing, the General Plan and parks and connectivity. For a list of the members of Healdsburg 2040, visit healdsburg2040.org. The group can be reached at Healdsburg2040@sonic.net.

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