Santa Rosa to consider streamlining housing process citywide

Three weeks after the October wildfires, Santa Rosa tried to make it easier for homeowners to rebuild their 3,000 homes lost in the fires.

The City Council streamlined the permit process to prioritize rebuilding permits, waived fees for debris removal and allowed people to live in tiny homes or trailers as they rebuilt.

The measures, like similar ones adopted in the county, have been widely viewed as a reasonable response to an unprecedented disaster and an important message to homeowners that the city is eager to see them rebuild.

But now the city wants to streamline new housing projects - including multifamily apartments, childcare centers and homeless shelters - in areas of the city that never burned.

The proposal, which heads to the City Council on Tuesday, is being welcomed by some as a long overdue effort to make it easier to build housing in the city. But it is striking others as excessive deregulation that could have lasting impacts.

“This has the potential to really change the face of Santa Rosa in the long term and it’s a temporary ordinance,” said Teri Shore of the Greenbelt Alliance. “It’s a three-year ordinance, but most of the projects will be forever.”

If approved, the ordinance would for the next three years cut some of the red tape for housing projects by reducing the amount of review they would receive from public boards, especially the Design Review Board.

Shore said that while that may sound like a reasonable way to boosting housing, in reality many kinds of projects would benefit “with very little public input,” including homeless shelters, farmworker housing, and motels and hotels.

The list of projects affected by the proposed ordinance is lengthy. It includes child care facilities, mobile home parks, multifamily apartments, mixed-use projects, single-room occupancy, single-family in limited cases and emergency shelters.

But the number of projects likely to come forward under the proposed ordinance is actually fairly limited, said City Planner Jessica Jones, because most of the ordinance applies only to projects in the city’s Priority Development Areas around the Highway 101 corridor, train stations and Roseland.

Projects in other parts of the city qualify for streamlining if they include on-site affordable housing, a move aimed as an incentive to developers to include affordable units in their projects.

“As a result of both the October wildfires and the previously existing significant housing shortage, the city is recommending changes to streamline the entitlement permitting process for housing, lodging and child care facilities,” Jones said.

If approved, the proposed changes would be welcomed news for developers such as The Wolff Company, which is seriously considering a deeper investment in Santa Rosa, said Dan Nethercott, a vice president at the Arizona-based developer. The company is finishing up a 120-unit addition to its 270-unit apartment complex near Coddingtown called The Annadel and considering other major projects in the city.

Much of the regulatory controls in place today in the state were instituted to control abuses by “mercenary developers” in the 70s and 80s who are largely a thing of the past, he said. When a company’s track record shows it to be a responsible and successful developer and owner, some of the regulatory review is just unnecessary, he said.

“We’re trying to build trust in communities so that they feel about us like people feel about Apple,” Nethercott said.

The Annadel complex project, because of its proximity to transit, would not have needed a hearing before the Design Review Board, but it would have still had a “concept review” of the project.

Michael Burch, the chairman of the Design Review Board, thinks its unwise to bypass his panel for what could be such key decisions.

“The baby is going out with the bathwater a little bit,” Burch said.

In a letter to the council, Burch called an earlier draft of the ordinance “deregulation at the extreme.”

“Extreme deregulation may be a bit much, but it is certainly deregulation in that there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for variation from the standards,” said Burch, who feels his board plays a vital role and shouldn’t be cut out of the important city planning process.

Under the proposal, many housing developments would have a reduced levels of review, saving time and money. Applicants would be allowed to skip a public hearing before Burch’s board, which he knows can be challenging for applicants because it involves “seven people with different tastes and different thoughts and different proclivities.”

Instead, the review would be conducted by a city planner through the zoning administrator process. Projects over 10,000 square feet or in areas deemed visually sensitive, however, would still go to the board for a “concept review,” but authority for approval would still rest with staff.

One of those to lodge objections against the city’s initial draft was Sonoma County Conservation Action, which asked the council to focus the ordinance only on projects within the city’s priority development areas near downtown and transit hubs.

Those areas, because of access to existing city infrastructure and transit options, are best suited for higher-density housing, said Kerry Fugett, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Narrowing the focus ordinance to those areas “is definitely appreciated,” but she said she was withholding judgment on other elements of the ordinance until she sees other changes.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or

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