Sonoma’s Planning Commission takes on First Street East development

Tempers are rising as the Planning Commission’s latest hearing on the “First Street East Project” approaches. The 3.4-acre mixed-use development between First and Second Streets East, just north of the Vintage House, has engendered an opposing group called Project Sonoma, which has been meeting to plot strategy, circulating petitions, and holding an online opinion poll to drum up support against the project.

The project – originally known as “The Cloisters” but now going by the more site-specific name since the original proposal was given a tepid response by the Planning Commission in last year’s study sessions – comes before the commission on Thursday, March 23. It’s the third time some form of the development at the site has had a hearing before the commission, but the first official consideration of a use permit application.

Still, a final up-or-down vote on the project is not in the cards. “This meeting has been noticed as a public hearing, but it is a study session in the sense that no final action will be taken,” said Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison. “The purpose of the meeting is to obtain direction from the Planning Commission on the scope of environmental review for the project.”

Over the last year and a half, the project’s scope has diminished, or at least changed, in each subsequent iteration. The first proposal was for a three-story 49-room hotel, 112-seat café, spa and a complex of apartments and homes. Two months later, the plans were for a mixed-use project composed of 27 residential units and a 32-room hotel with a 48-seat restaurant.

The project is described as being at 216-245 First Street East and 279-285 Second Street East, in a “mixed use” zone with historic overlay, given its proximity to the Mission and Plaza area.

The proposal up for review on March 23 is for 32 residential units with 79 bedrooms, and a 30-unit inn and pool club including a clubhouse, spa and café. Most of the buildings are now two-story, though five three-story buildings remain of the 24-building total, excluding garages.

The latest proposal includes only one 1-bedroom unit, 15 2-bedroom units, 11 3-bedroom units in attached flats, as well as five detached 3-bedroom units, of almost 2200 square feet each.

A 30-room hotel is also proposed, divided among three main units and two “casitas.” There’s also a 71-square food “coffee/sundries shop,” and two swimming pools, one in the interior of the complex and one north of the hotel buildings.

Ed Routhier, one of the principals in Caymus Construction, the developers of the FSE project, calls the most recent version of the plan “a better fit for Sonoma… We are pleased with the process, and look forward to continuing to work closely with the city on this endeavor.”

But for members of the North of the Mission Neighborhood Association, and its action committee Protect Sonoma, the review process is far from over, and far from collegial.

From its website at protectsonoma.com (featuring a Monopoly-style design metaphor), the group offers learning resources, an online Change.org petition (that’s about half-way to its 1,000 signature goal), and tools to submit comment to the Planning Commission (many of which will be included in the Planning Commission’s agenda packet, available online.)

They also ran an email survey earlier this month, to counter a survey that Caymus ran which claimed overwhelming support for the development. It’s likely both Caymus and Protect Sonoma will introduce their survey results to the public comment on the project, but each claims the other’s survey was biased and inaccurate.

Staff recommendation for the meeting is for the preparation of an environmental impact report, addressing specific topics as identified in the Initial Study.

The Planning Commission will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 23, at the Community Meeting Room, 177 First St. West.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.