Santa Rosa City Council approves measures to speed new housing projects

Santa Rosa streamlined its approval process for housing projects Tuesday in its latest effort to tackle the city’s post-fire housing crisis. But the move came over the objections of some council members and interest groups who felt less regulation could have unintended consequences.

The City Council approved measures meant to make it faster and cheaper for a wide variety of housing projects to win approval by limiting review by the city’s seven-member Design Review Board.

Since November, properties within areas that burned during the October wildfires have enjoyed expedited permit review and other measures meant to smooth the rebuilding effort, and city planners came up with ways to expand similar measures to other parts of the city.

As the proposal was getting mired in late-night amendments, Councilman Tom Schwedhelm urged his colleagues to be bold and support the measures and trust that city staff would manage the streamlined process responsibly.

“If we don’t take some risks we’re never going to change our status here,” Schwedhelm said. “Yes it’s outside of the burn area. It’s for the whole city because the whole city needs more housing.”

But he couldn’t muster a unanimous vote, as Councilwoman Julie Combs and Vice Mayor Chris Rogers expressed concern the measures were overly broad and legally questionable.

Combs made the case that the streamlining should only apply to projects in the city’s priority development areas, which are zones located around train stations, Highway 101 and parts of Roseland that have been deemed most appropriate for higher-density housing.

Residents in those areas largely understand that their neighborhoods are slated for more housing, while other parts of town may be blindsided by significant additional housing under an expedited review process, Combs said.

“I’m very uncomfortable with subjecting our residents to the level of unpredictability that this is going to create for them,” she said.

Community groups including Greenbelt Alliance, the open space advocacy group, made a similar case.

But David Guhin, director of the city’s Planning and Economic Development department said limiting the measures to just priority development areas would limit the effectiveness of the tool to make housing development easier. Altogether, Santa Rosa lost more than 3,000 homes in the October fires, which destroyed nearly 5,300 homes countywide.

Concerns about the proposal centered partly on its application to a long list of projects considered housing. That included child care facilities, mobile home parks, multifamily apartments, mixed-use projects, single-room occupancy, some single-family homes and emergency shelters.

The concern about homeless shelters popping up in neighborhoods with less review than people have come to expect gave some council members pause, but Councilmember Jack Tibbetts came up with a solution other council members accepted.

Tibbetts said he didn’t want to see homeless services concentrated even more than they already are downtown and in the southwest. He proposed new facilities approved under the expedited process in other neighborhoods be limited to 10 residents, and the council agreed.

He also called for the $475 fee to appeal staff decisions to be cut in half, and for the streamlining measures to be reviewed by the council in each of the next three years to ensure they were working properly.

The council moved forward even though it received a 20-page letter Tuesday from veteran environmental attorney Richard Drury arguing that the ordinance was an overreach.

He said it was appropriate for the city to take extraordinary measures to make it easier for people to build in burn areas, but that it was completely inappropriate to limit public review for projects elsewhere.

He argued the ordinance “essentially allowed wholesale redevelopment of large swaths of the city that were completely unaffected by the fires without public review, without public involvement, without the normal hearing process that the public has become used to.”

City planning staff stressed there would still be significant review of projects, including pre-application neighborhood meetings and a concept review meeting at the Design Review Board for projects over 10,000 square feet. City planning staff will be responsible for upholding the city’s strict design guidelines.

Responding to concerns that the measures might change the face of the city for years to come, Peter Rumble, executive director of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said he’d welcome that.

“Right now the face of the city is no housing for you,” he said. “So if it does change the face of the city, that might be a good thing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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