Builder details twists, turns of Santa Rosa planning processEditor's note: A four-year, five-month saga of red tape and delay of a Santa Rosa development detailed here by developer Oakmont Senior Living is sad. But what's even sadder is that, as many in the business community have expressed all too often, it is not unique in the city of Santa Rosa.

The Elnoka property near Oakmont is designated in the General Plan for development of medium-density housing. But as someone said recently, the General Plan, which is designed to guide development after intensive study and open public meetings, is in reality treated by many public officials more like a target, at best, or just ignored, at worst.

Oakmont Senior Living has built dozens of retirement and other types of communities throughout California and the West, including Varenna at Fountaingrove and the long-delayed gay and lesbian retirement community Fountain­grove Lodge.

Elnoka started out as a pretty straight-forward medium-density residential project in 2004. But as the chronology here shows, the process toward approval morphed and re-morphed.

Over the course of this process, the company found that just as one member of the Santa Rosa planning staff came up to speed on the proposal, he or she was reassigned and replaced by someone new. That occurred, the company said, three times.

A part of the project was designated as medium density, then changed to low.

No rezone was said to be required, then it was. No Environmental Impact Report was said to be required, and then it was. Each change triggered new fees, applications and public and neighborhood meetings, many of which became contentious with project opponents.

Developers and business people in similar situations most often take their lumps and resist speaking out because they fear even more costly delays. Not this time.

The question after reading this chronology should be: "Would a reasonable person see this as the normal planning process or unnecessary delay and obstruction?"

You decide. (Italics are added at key points.)

Oakmont Senior Living will be referred to throughout this document as OSL. Oakmont Senior Living has no affiliation with the Oakmont Housing Community located on Highway 12.

February 2005 The Elnoka property is purchased by OSL. Total 63 acres.

March 2005 Kou You property, which borders Elnoka Village and is part of the city's Plan Development, is offered for sale by Dave McKenney, the representative for the Japanese owners.

July 2005 Meetings with Bill Mabry of OSL, Mr. McKenney (representing the Kou You property) and the city's senior planner and zoning administrator to confirm that this parcel was designated Medium Density within the General Plan.

August 2005 After the senior planner and zoning administrator for the city confirmed that this five-acre parcel was designated for Medium Density housing per the General Plan, a purchase price was then established and OSL bought the property.

October 2005 Determination was made by Planning that the avenue for development of the Elnoka 9.52 acres and the recently purchased Kou You property of five acres would only require a modification to the Policy Statement through a Conditional Use Permit.

2006 Per city staff's direction, OSL started financing and developing plans and studies for the 14-plus-acre property (such as arborist review, wetlands, soils, traffic, etc.) in anticipation of filing a completed application.

January 2007 OSL held an informative meeting with the Oakmont Village Association Board and members of the Oakmont Planned Development Committee to present the proposed Elnoka Village project.

February 2007 The active planner for the project reassigned a new senior planner in charge of the Elnoka project. Planner No. 2.

March 2007 Presentation by OSL in Oak­mont.

March 2007 The staff planner for Elnoka project confirmed that the department staff and OSL had agreed to process an amendment to the planned development to bring it in conformance to the current General Plan designation of Medium Density.

April 6, 2007 Planner explained that the city did not send notices to all required parties, and the neighborhood meeting needed to be postponed and rescheduled.

April 16, 2007 Neighborhood meeting held.

April 23, 2007 Application was deemed complete upon submittal to the city. Project Submittal No. 1.

May 16, 2007 OSL invited members of the OVA (Oakmont Village Association) and OPDC (Oakmont Property Development Committee) boards for a luncheon and tour at the Varenna property, which included further discussions about the Elnoka project.

June 2007 Current project planner reassigned project to a newly hired planner, who then became the third assigned planner on this project. Staff inconsistency is beginning to slow the project, as new planners take time to come up to speed. Planner No. 3.

June 2007 Prior to scheduled ART (Application Review Team) meeting, the new senior planner informed OSL that the city planning director and zoning administrator had reversed their previous decision that the Kou You property was Medium Density, now deeming it to be Low Density, greatly reducing the property value and negating the many hours spent developing plans and losing previously paid application fees.

The reversal of the density decision forced the project to eliminate the Kou You acreage from the plan. The city made the determination that this would have to be a completely new application, new fees paid, and timing would start from zero.

June 22, 2007 New plans were drawn, and all studies had to be updated to remove the Kou You property from the resubmittal package. The overall project had to be reduced by 92 units. Once again additional fees had to be paid prior to resubmittal. Once the project was resubmitted, the senior planner on the project explained that he could not start work on the application until he was formally assigned. (Projects were only assigned on a weekly basis.) Project Submittal #2.

July 2007 Planning officials chose July 17 to inform OSL that after 21 months in the process, contrary to their previous decision to only require a Use Permit, they changed their determination and OSL was required to do a full rezoning application.

Since October 2005 and in further conversations in April and May 2007, the city determined that OSL would need to process an amendment to the Planned Development to bring the project consistent with the General Plan.

July 18, 2007 New neighborhood meeting triggered by resubmittal.

August 1, 2007 OSL meets with city representatives including the then mayor to discuss items of the July 17 letter, in which it was stated that the city no longer was allowing the project to process as a Use Permit but must now go through a full rezoning process. We also discussed staff's reversal of its decision that the Kou You property was Medium Density and that it was now Low Density, requiring a full resubmittal of the project. Due to staff's mistake and the financial cost of that mistake to applicant, the mayor asked if it would be possible to waive the cost of resubmittal and try to fast track the project to make up for lost time. Staff didn't feel that they could waive the fees but assured us that they would help move the project through.

The planning director and staff all concurred that they would commit to helping us through the rezoning process, and this process would consist of one meeting at Planning Commission level, moving on directly to City Council, and once the rezoning was adopted, we would then move forward with our project to Design Review. City planning staff assured OSL that once we had the zoning, there would be no need for additional CEQA requirements, such as an EIR.

August 3, 2007 Submitted Rezone application. Project Submittal No. 3.

August 7, 2007 New ART (Application Review Team) meeting.

August 17, 2007 Issues letter received.

October 11, 2007 Comments/corrections resubmitted to city staff.

November - February 2008 City processed the Negative Declaration (meaning there would be no requirement for an Environmental Impact Report) and OSL supplied supporting studies. The Initial Study/Negative Declaration developed by the city served as an environmental compliance document, satisfying the California Environmental Quality Act requirements for the rezone.

March 27, 2008 After seven months of processing OSL's application, the city scheduled a Planning Commission hearing for approval of the rezoning. Prior to the hearing, city staff created a staff report, including copies of the Negative Declaration along with a staff-prepared resolution recommending approval of the rezone. During the hearing before the Planning Commission, city staff reversed its decision and recommended that the Planning Commission deny the request for rezoning. The Planning Commission took a straw vote to deny the rezoning and would take final action at its next meeting.

April 10, 2008 OSL returned to Planning Commission with our attorney to inform the commission that we believed they were misled by staff, and per the General Plan the rezoning is strictly an administrative act to bring the zoning in compliance with the General Plan. At that meeting, Planning Commission decided to reconsider its decision of March 27.

May 8, 2008 After reconsideration and further study of the rezone, Planning Commission reversed its previous decision of March 27 and adopted the rezoning, along with the negative declaration, which also included a traffic impact study for this site.

June 2008 Planning Commission decision was appealed by the Oakmont Village Association.

July 8, 2008 City Council, through advice by the City Attorney, upheld the decision of the Planning Commission for the rezone and adoption of the resolution, the negative declaration and the traffic study, and rezones the property to be in compliance with the General Plan, Medium Density R3-18.

Once we received the zoning, we proceeded to compile another submittal application for the project.

September 3, 2008 Had another neighborhood meeting. Showed neighbors the new application with changes to the previous plan and the removal of the Kou You property (due to the city's reversal of its decision that the property was zoned Medium Density per the General Plan map). By removing the Kou You property, this reduced the size of the project by 92 units, bringing it down to 209.

September 11, 2008 Began process of our fourth application, at additional cost of $35,000 in city fees. Project Submittal #4.

November 2008 City developed an initial study for the project at a cost of $33,000 to the applicant, to determine what CEQA requirements were necessary, such as an EIR or negative declaration.

November 19, 2008 Received staff's position and issues letter.

December 2008 - January 2009 Worked closely with staff to clarify their position and address their issues.

February 2009 Due to political pressures, city staff determined that per review of the initial study, an EIR is required for this project, even though we had just received the city's resolution granting us an R3-18 zoning on the property just six months prior and that the project we submitted conforms to all the R3-18 zoning regulations.

March 2009 OSL paid the city, as requested, $170,000 to start the EIR process, of which the city received 15 percent.

April 2009 City Council approved the EIR contract.

June 24, 2009 City held a scoping meeting to hear concerns and comments from the surrounding neighbors and concerned citizens.

July 2009 The project senior planner was replaced, making this our fourth planner. Planner No. 4.

July 2009 After the scoping meeting was held and public comment was reviewed by the new planner, the determination was made that the scope of the EIR needed to be expanded at an additional cost of $48,000.

July 2009 Cost of EIR passed the $200,000 mark ($218,000).


William P. Gallaher was born and raised in Santa Rosa and has been a general contractor/developer since 1979. He is the owner of Oakmont Senior Living in Santa Rosa. He can be reached at 707-535-3200 or front.desk@oakmontsl.com.

UPDATE, Aug. 26, 2009: Santa Rosa City Manager Jeff Kolin responds to Mr. Gallaher.