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SANTA ROSA -- The Santa Rosa City Council has agreed to explore what are being labeled by city officials as "aggressive" additions to a plan for kickstarting the city's economy.

The proposal includes 17 recommended changes to real estate development-related regulations and as many suggested economic development initiatives, all designed to "reduce barriers of entry for new and expanding businesses," according to the 17-page document.

Five council members voted to hold a public hearing on the proposed additions to the 2006 and 2008 Economic Sustainability Work Plan developed by the Economic Development and Housing and Community Development departments. Jane Bender was absent, and John Sawyer abstained.

The hearing date is to be determined. [Update: "What do you call 25 changes to city rules? A good start," July 15, 2010.]

Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Coe said it's a "great start" and is glad city staff worked with the business community in developing the recommendations in the past several months.

"We're broadly supportive and encouraged that the city is pursuing this plan for a consistent and aggressive economic development program," he said Thursday.

The key will be to make sure the development-related changes are implemented and economic-improvement metrics are developed.

Proposed development-related changes would affect zoning, General Plan policy and the process itself in seven categories. The changes are intended to be used for two to three years and potentially kept or phased out afterward.

Extensions and reactivations. For example, the timeframe to fill commercial vacancies before existing zoning would change to new zoning would be two years instead of six months. Conditional use permits could pass to a new property owner if the use stays the same. Previous approvals could get longer extensions and be reactivated if expired.

Waive or postpone public improvements such as landscaping and parking lot upgrades on renovation of a building for new tenants or of a facade. It could also apply to reconstruction projects that don't increase gross square footage.

Allow more uses by right, streamlining the review of projects that aren't next to homes. The problem is that the city's policy goals for economic vitality and regulating development can be at odds in tough times, according to the report, written by Chuck Regalia, community development director, and Danielle O'Leary, economic development manager.

"The General Plan Economic Vitality Element calls for the city to proactively facilitate job growth and to develop strategies to attract business," the report said. "The Zoning Code was not adopted with an aggressive economic sustainability strategy in mind."

So changes could be needed in commercial and industrial planning district zoning to allow certain businesses and operations without the time and expense required for obtaining a minor conditional use permit and rezoning, according to the proposal. Doing this, the report noted, would cost the city more for staff time without reimbursement from fees.

That would allow recreation-related businesses to go into large vacant warehouses and beauty and nail salons into office districts as well as allow restaurants to serve alcohol.

Establishments where food is secondary to alcohol, such as bars and nightclubs, would need to obtain such permits, according to the recommendations.

Also a different type of business could occupy a building -- such as a restaurant going into a store -- without a change in required parking if the difference is less than 10 spaces.

Modify the design review process to allow tiny commercial projects such as awnings, doors and windows to get over-the-counter permits and shift responsibility from the Design Review Board to the Zoning Administrator for Corby Auto Row dealership projects and to department staff for final design review.

Increase flexibility in the city Sign Code and Guidelines to allow a "relatively small and limited numbers" of signs on buildings facing Highway 101 that would "enhance rather than detract from Santa Rosa's character," the report said. Currently, signs generally have to be visible from streets, too.

Five locations were identified in the report. One was the newly renovated building housing Staples, TJ Maxx and Orchard Supply Hardware stores. The owner cited increases in stores sales from freeway signage for Staples by 5 percent to 15 percent and for OSH by 15 percent, according to the document.

Amend the General Plan to allow supermarkets, grocery stores and large drug stores to go into existing buildings outside of community shopping center designated areas for three years.

The city has received inquiries from specialty grocers and companies wanting to put in a grocery too large to fit in a community shopping center, according to the report.

Defer collection of development impact fees until final project inspection. Currently, the fees are collected at the time a final map is recorded or building permit is issued, and the cost for the fees would be drawn from construction financing at that time. However, if slackened demand or construction-order cancellation stalls a project afterward, the builder can be faced with making payments on the fees plus interest or paying the fees out of pocket.

A number of building groups proposed the Santa Rosa adopt the fee-deferral approach called for under Assembly Bill 2604 of 2008. That would delay fee collection and drawing construction funds until the final stages of the project, limiting the time between when the builder pays the fees and recoups money from a sale.

The Home Builders Association of Northern California is preparing a review of governments in the state that have adopted AB 2604 because of city council concerns last week that a defunct builder would leave the city without fees for parks and roads for a project.

"Fees are a significant impact, and fee deferral can help create economic vitality by reducing cash flow needs for the builder," said Craig Lawson, president of Pinnacle Homes. "The city is not at risk, and true impact for parks, traffic, sewer and water is not there until residents are in the units."