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Besieged Planning Commission hears pros, cons on Sonoma’s First Street East project


In an unusually charged and crowded Planning Commission hearing on Thursday, March 23, advocates of and objectors to the mixed-use development known as the First Street East Project packed the Community Meeting Room to consider the need for a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.

The tension even preceded the hearing, as earlier in the day longtime Commissioner Chip Roberson resigned from the body – in protest over the failure of fellow Commissioner Ron Wellander to be renominated at the end of his first term by Mayor Rachel Hundley. The double vacancy meant that the newly selected alternate, James Bohar, took a commissioner’s seat for the first time that night – learning of his promotion only minutes before the meeting began.

Adding to the drama, Commissioner Bill Willers was also absent, possibly at least in part because his neutrality was questioned by backers of the FSE Project.

“Until that question is resolved, he has decided not to participate in review of this project,” said City Planner David Goodison.

But the Pledge of Allegiance that opened the meeting didn’t end the polarization: Shortly after, public comment kicked off with J.J. Abodeely, an investor in the FSE Project, challenging the newly-seated Bohar over his objectivity, citing a statement made at an earlier Planning Commission hearing on the project, where Bohar spoke as a resident during public comment.

Bohar did not respond to Abodeely’s charge, and Goodison swiftly cut the speaker off, as public comment is intended for topics not appearing on the agenda.

Noting the size and passion of the crowd – every seat in the Community Meeting Room was taken, as were all the seats in the two overflow anterooms – Chairman James Cribb said he’d hold fast to the three-minute rule for public comment, but allowed both the applicant, Caymus Capital, and the opposing group, Protect Sonoma, a full 15 minutes to deliver statements in support and opposed.

Cribb also emphasized that the meeting was to determine the need for a CEQA study – other topics, such parking and aesthetics, that were not covered by CEQA would not be allowed.

“There will be no other decisions made tonight other than to direct staff to do further studies for environmental review,” said Cribb; and at the end of the meeting, that was exactly the decision reached by the five-member commission.

But that decision was still four hours, and about 30 public comments, later. The Caymus presentation primarily consisted of a new video promoting the benefits of “a unique opportunity as a smart, mixed-use development for a more sustainable Sonoma.”

The opportunities cited included 32 new homes “for Sonoma families,” a café as a community gathering place and meeting space, job creation, an annuity stream to the City’s general fund, and “significant local economic benefit through the multiplier effect of tourist spending.”

After the video, architect Doug Hilberman of Santa Rosa’s Axia Architets underscored a couple of its key points, adding that one thing that was not covered were some of the innovations in parking they planned, including an elevated courtyard over the parking area.

Speaking for Protect Sonoma, the neighborhood action group formed in response to the FSE Project by the North of Mission Neighborhood Association, was Sheila O’Neill, a mortgage broker in Sonoma who said she was chosen because she “wasn’t afraid of talking in front of people.”

She noted that the group she represented was the same one that led the fight against the Rosewood Hotel in the mid-1990s, which would have placed a large resort hotel on the hillside overlooking the city where the Overlook Trail is now located.

She also pointed out that although this was zoned as mixed-use, any project at this location was not required to be mixed use, and stressed that since there were no other three-story buildings in the neighborhood the project was incompatible. Other objections she cited included traffic-safety concerns, especially for the seniors and school-age children using such nearby facilities as Vintage House and the kids baseball diamonds directly across the street.

“Arguing that this project is compatible defines reason or logic,” she said, calling it an “ill-fated project” and suggesting that no more of the city’s time be wasted considering it.

Public comment was lengthy and robust, and for at least the first hour most of the comments were in opposition to the project, most of them from nearby residents. But a number of pro-project voices also spoke, many of them saying they’d like to move to Sonoma to raise their families but the housing shortage made that difficult, and mentioning that the tax revenue would help Sonoma meet its bills and obligations for growth.

“The secret is out,” said David Gordon, citing press reports extolling the virtues of Sonoma. “The way to circumvent the problem you have with the housing shortage is give in to the supply-and-demand needs you have in the community.”

Vic Conforti, an architect with long standing in Sonoma, countered that the average cost of the homes being built would be around $500 per square foot, meaning most of the new units would sell for around a $1 million or higher.

“Our neighborhood wants a diverse housing stock on that property, taking care of the people who are really living in this town,” said Richard Stevens. “These units will not be affordable to teachers, the kinds of people who we want to move here.”

Public comment was heard from about 40 people, and lasted over an hour and a half before it was returned to the applicant, Ed Routhier of Caymus Capital. He took to the podium to consolidate his arguments and attempt to soothe the passions of the neighborhood advocates. He reiterated that it was not a commercial project but a residential project, but conceded that traffic studies – which he suggested the neighbors should pay for – might show it had more impact than anticipated.

“All they talk about is their views and their feelings of how they feel about this project,” said Routhier. “I’m looking for the truth, I’m just looking at the numbers. If I’m wrong and traffic is going up, I will pull the hotel.”

O’Neill – who, after the meeting, said she’d take Routhier’s offer “with a grain of salt” – summarized, “What we’re worried about is what’s compatible with the neighborhood. We compel you to reject the project and send it back to the drawing board, and give us a project that is compatible.”

After their own discussion, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to require staff to prepare a draft environmental impact study on the CEQA issues, rather than requiring a series of special studies and awaiting their outcome prior to deciding whether or not to require an EIR. In other words, they took the shortcut to a longer study.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.