First-ever agreement at Sonoma Mountain; new 'layer of bureacracy'

NORTH BAY – Community Benefit Agreements, contracts between developers and union, environmental and other groups, have become more common in the last decade.

In October, Codding Enterprises entered into an agreement with the Accountable Development Coalition regarding labor, affordable housing and environmental aspects of Sonoma Mountain Village, the mixed-use project on the 200-acre former Agilent Technologies site.

Jack Buckhorn is an executive board member of the Accountable Development Coalition in Sonoma County, an organization made up of unions, affordable housing advocates, environmentalists, transit and land-use experts and others.

Its mission is to “promote smart growth principles in order to create livable, environmentally sustainable communities with shared prosperity.”

“A paradigm shift is taking place,” he said.

Amy Lavine is a staff attorney at the Government Law Center at Albany Law School. She has written a number of scholarly articles on the subject of CBAs.

In the last 10 years, she said, CBAs have been used more often in developments.

When regions come to their first CBAs, she said, “It does set a precedent for community groups, and they use these wins as a way to promote their cause.”

She said that signing a CBA can be really useful for developers because then they don’t have to deal with the potential for lawsuits.

“Usually the threat [of not signing] is that if the developer doesn’t comply, a gamut of lawsuits will ensue,” she said.

She defines a CBA as “a private contract negotiated between a pro­spective developer and community representatives. In es­sence, the CBA specifies the benefits that the developer will provide to the community in exchange for the com­munity’s support of its proposed development. A promise of community support may be especially useful to a devel­oper seeking government subsidies or project approvals.”

The Sonoma Mountain Village CBA stipulated compliance with a living wage. This is $15 per hour if no health benefits are paid and $13.20 if they are.

The development will include 15 percent affordable housing.

Sonoma Mountain Village agreed to an annual fee to “defray a portion of the coalition expenses to fulfill its obligations to the development.”

The fees are a one-time $5,000 contribution upon ratification of the agreement and include $6,000 “upon groundbreaking of the residential construction beginning on the development and each January 15th thereafter during construction of the development.”

This unrestricted donation is intended to be used for administrative costs.

This 20-page agreement took upwards of two and a half years to complete and was the first in Sonoma County’s history.

While useful, CBAs do force the issue of living wages on a developer and cause them to look again at issues such as environmental impacts.

“I feel like it is yet another layer of bureaucracy,” said Tony Korman, partner in Saggio Hills, a proposed development in Healdsburg. “All of these aspects and studies are already covered in existing documents. If a municipality feels additional information is needed, they can certainly request additional studies on a case by case basis. But to simply request an additional layer, in all cases, is not necessary and not warranted. It will only further delay an already difficult and costly process.”

The Accountable Development Coalition is negotiating a CBA with the developers of the new Railroad Square project. The multi-phase, multi-use rail-side infill project will include affordable for-rent housing, market rate for-sale condos, a 40,000-square-foot public market, 40,000 square feet of office space, the Sonoma County Food and Wine center, a 263-space parking garage and several restaurants.

Michael Allen is the chair of the ADC. He was also appointed to the Santa Rosa Planning Commission in January of this year by city councilmember Gary Wysocky.

Mr. Allen said many on the coalition worked for years with Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, the owners of a portion of the land, to make sure that there would be a Community Benefits Agreement included in the RFP.

When SMART and the developer finalized the buy option agreement, it included the stipulation that they enter into a CBA.

John Stewart, chairman of the John Stewart Co. and developer of the project, said in addition to the ADC, it has brought in the West End Neighborhood Association, the local merchants group, the bike coalition, the Cultural Heritage Community Group, the redevelopment agency, the housing authority, city proper and SMART.

He said this way everyone can sit down and come to an agreement that everyone is happy about.

The process with a CBA is lengthy, he said, and as an administrative matter, they would be working a lot faster normally.

Some of the issues being negotiated are the LEED rating it will apply for and prevailing wage.

The company has publicly said it will go for LEED gold, “very hard to achieve,” he said. “But in the negotiating they are asking us to work toward platinum.”

He said having prevailing wage for some of the work is way above market and could be $60 an hour.

“But labor is a different issue,” he said.  “Our position is that it is public money, among other things. We want to make sure there is a healthy competition, both union and non-union contractors.”

Mr. Buckhorn is the lead negotiator for the Railroad Square CBA. He is also the business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551.

“We are meeting on a regular basis and coming to consensus,” he said. “We are right in the middle of negotiations. It is a dynamic document. One piece fits into another and we have tentatively agreed on certain areas.”

Mr. Allen said the Accountable Development Coalition does not have any other developments in mind yet. Though, he said, as developments begin to spring up along the SMART corridor, that will be a likely starting place.