Sonoma County housing, hotel project sued over greenhouse gas emissions concerns
Healdsburg has begun its review of a developer’s proposal to build what would be the city’s largest housing project, a plan on the north end of town that has restoked the fiery debate in this Wine Country destination over the pace of residential growth and hotel development.
Already, the proposal by Southern California-based Comstock Homes has drawn a legal challenge against the city, with opponents asserting the expansive development would run afoul of state environmental regulations.
The project, on a vacant former lumber yard bounded by Healdsburg Avenue and Highway 101 north of Simi Winery, currently calls for more than 350 units of housing and a 120-room hotel.
The housing would be split between 132 income-restricted rental units for the local workforce and a 220-unit senior living community. Plans also call for 20,000 square feet of retail space.
“We have a vision to provide something sorely needed in the community,” said Debra Geiler, Comstock’s director of entitlements. “The mix of housing units and the hotel and all of it is sort of the economic balance. If we succeed, what we will be able to provide to Healdsburg is a paradigm shift in community design and creating neighborhoods.”
But Sebastopol-based California River Watch has filed suit contending that Healdsburg failed to lawfully account for the greenhouse gas emissions the luxury hotel would generate. The lawsuit is a key piece of the group’s goal to force local governments to more closely account for the climate impacts of commercial growth and the region’s tourism economy.
“We have maybe 10 years to make major changes in how we conduct our lives and business activities to avoid irreversible, catastrophic global warming,” said Santa Rosa-based environmental attorney Jerry Bernhaut, who represents the group. “If the only way to get affordable housing is to destroy the environment, then we’re in deep trouble. That’s unconscionable.”
Healdsburg, however, has emerged as one of the county’s most expensive and slowest-growing real estate markets, adding just over 300 new homes in the past decade under the city’s growth cap approved by voters in 2000. The city of roughly 12,000 people has about 5,000 homes, including apartments and houses. At the end of July, the median monthly rental rate was $3,200 and the median sales price for a single-family house was $830,000, according to San Francisco-based real estate service Trulia.
Remade in recent decades from a farm town surrounded by prune and hop orchards into a stop for Wine Country visitors and diners, Healdsburg has also endured a bruising fight over the rate and density of hotel development. The issue came to head late last year with the city adopting new rules banning additional hotels on the central plaza, and limiting future downtown lodging projects to five rooms or fewer.
Yet to attract new housing affordable for its workforce, the city and others in the county have often had to settle for mixed-use developments that offer trade-offs. The common strategy includes deals allowing more profitable elements, such as market-rate homes or hotels, to offset the cost of income-restricted units.
Healdsburg officials have opened the door to such projects, and Comstock Homes’ North Village development is the biggest bid to date. It would surpass the Parkland Farms subdivision, with 346 single-family homes, as the largest housing project in the city’s history.