Planning panel OKs infill project

Despite neighborhood objections, the Sonoma Planning Commission voted Thursday to approve Nicora Place, an 18-unit, single-family, infill project on West Spain Street.

Citing the developer’s attempts to mitigate neighborhood concerns, and calling it an “oasis” amid much denser development on both sides, the commission approved the Planned Unit Development (PUD) and its Mitigated Negative Declaration.

“In the old days, these were long lots with farms behind,” said Commissioner Gary Edwards. He referred to an overhead view of the site with the location of the units projected on the parcel. “I look at what’s there now and it is very dense. This PUD is not as dense as the units around it.”

Nicora Place will be built on a two-acre lot at 821-845 W. Spain St., a site that already has 11 older units. Those buildings are scheduled to be removed. The new, detached homes will be three bedrooms, two baths and will have 12 different architectural treatments. They will be built around a U-shaped drive with 12 homes on the perimeter and six in the center next to a small park. The driveway will be a fire lane and no parking will be allowed. But most units will have two-car garages and driveway aprons for parking off street. Four dedicated guest spots will also be constructed.

Nine speakers from the neighborhood spoke in opposition. Concerns included loss of privacy and morning light, negative impact on property values, more traffic with increased site distance hazards for those exiting onto Spain Street, and the loss of large trees. Several asked that the units be single story, not two.

A few of the speakers asked the Planners to look at the entire area, not just this one small piece, when making their decision. Several multi-family projects have been built on the west side of Sonoma and one more infill project is going through the process on Spain.

“All of our open space is disappearing,” said Lori Winter, who lives just a block from the project. She also cited loss of eucalyptus trees, the granting of too many exceptions and the concern over how parking restrictions will be enforced.

Steve Ledson, the developer, attempted to respond to issues brought up by neighbors. He said Covenants, Codes, and Restrictions (known as CC&Rs) will require that garages not be used for storage and driveways must be used for parking. These types of rules are usually enforced by a homeowners’ association. In response to complaints over all units being three bedrooms and two baths, Ledson said more people are working at home and need a room for an office as well as a guest room. But his emphasis, he said, is on families. “I’m trying to bring back the single-family detached house,” he said, adding that he’d built 3,500 houses during his career and none had ever devaluated another’s property.

Commissioner Robert Felder said he was struggling with whether the project should be a PUD or medium density housing. “When I step back and see the attempt that has been made to mitigate problems,” he said, “the project seems to fit as single family homes in an infill situation. We don’t have many opportunities like this.”

David Goodison, planning director, said PUDs allow exceptions, but they also give the Planning Commission more flexibility in requiring trade-offs. Some of the changes the developer has made include changed roof-lines, increased perimeter setbacks, some garages now single story, reduced density (the code allows 22 units) and replacement of trees. A traffic study found that the traffic impacts would be minimal. As a mitigation measure, the developer will contribute to a fund set up to put a future traffic light at Spain and Fifth Street West.

The project will next go to the Design Review Commission where its architecture and landscaping will be scrutinized, along with a request to remove the 11 existing structures.