Sonoma Planning Commission approves 15-unit housing plan, despite misgivings

A proposal to build 15 housing units on Fifth Street West was approved by the Sonoma Planning Commission last week, despite less-than-enthusiastic reviews by planning commissioners and staunch opposition from some neighbors.

But with an eye toward state law that requires jurisdictions to weigh only objective standards when deciding if a project adheres to a city development code, the commission on June 2 voted 5-1 to approve the so-called Hummingbird Cottages, with Commissioner Larry Barnett opposed and Commissioner Bill Willers not in attendance.

“This move toward objectivity is reductionist materialism of the worst order,” said Barnett about the California Housing Accountability Act, which limits local discretion in the approval of projects. “It is taking the nuance, the je ne sais quoi (in local planning decisions)… and it is wiping it off the table.”

Hummingbird Cottages is a proposal from Concord-based DeNova Homes to develop nine single-family residences and three duplexes on a 1.5-acre property at 19910 Fifth St. W. Twelve of the homes would be sold at market rates, with three others at low-, medium- and modest-rates. The duplex units would be 1,379 to 1,618 square feet and the detached homes from 1,757 to 1,918 square feet.

Planning Commissioners have at past meetings called for DeNova to decrease the size of the units in an effort to make them more affordable.

The commission on May 12 initially denied the project, partly due to an inconsistency in city documents related to the zoning of the property. In the city’s housing element of its General Plan, the site is zoned as what’s referred to as “residential opportunity,” or RO, which calls for a minimum of 15 units per acre and a maximum of 25. But in the city’s zoning ordinance and map, it’s listed as “residential medium density,” or RM, which allows for between seven and 11 total units per acre.

But city staff confirmed June 2 that the property was indeed medium density and that DeNova’s project had been designed under the correct zoning.

Several neighbors from the adjacent 21-unit Sonesta Villas development spoke at the meeting, arguing that Hummingbird’s inclusion of two-story units in the project is out of character with the mostly single-story residences in the surrounding neighborhood – a standard they said was objective since city code ensures that “new infill development respect the immediate context.”

Neighbor Pete Posert described it as “Kafka-esque” to suggest two-story units are in sync with the surrounding context of single-story housing.

“The adjacent buildings are one story,” said Poser. “(Can city staff) convince the Planning Commission that Sonesta homes are non-objective two story buildings?”

However, Sonoma Planning Director David Storer said that even with two-story units, the project is consistent with the city’s General Plan.

“In our zoning code, the developer has the ability to build two-story, single-family homes, with a maximum height of 30 feet,” said Storer. “It’s by right, they can do that.”

Commissioner Sheila O’Neill asked DeNova spokesperson Trent Sanson what his company was willing to do to make the units more affordable.

Sanson pointed out that DeNova had made some modifications to the project already and that anything further would have to come on behalf of the city.

“If the city of Sonoma really wants to see more (affordability), the developer can’t keep making concessions, the city has to make concessions,” Sanson said. “The city has to have some gives if the city wants to see something different. One 15-unit project cannot solve the city’s desires and wishes for the greater city at large.”

Echoing sentiments shared by some of his Planning Commission colleagues, Commissioner Steve Barbose said he’d support the project despite his misgivings about the size and affordability of the units.

“I don’t think it’s the best project, but given the state of the law they’re entitled to approval of this project,” Barbose said. “They’re within their rights to build what they’re building.”

Barbose further called for his commission colleagues and city staff to update city code to ensure it is guided by objective standards for future projects.

“If we want to have a different result on a different property we need to tighten (the code) up and create the standards that we need to make these things happen -- smaller, denser projects that respect neighborhoods,” said Barbose.

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