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Planners approve 73 new units in final meetings

The Sonoma Planning Commission faced seven proposals on its November agenda, matters that had been stacking up over several months of controversy and confusion for the at-times besieged body. The commission has been beleagured by challenges to its decisions and reduced in numbers by term limits, resignations and a failure by the City Council to reappoint.

The Planning Commission’s most recent meeting on Nov. 16 would be its last in its 2017 composition of commissioners. On Monday, the City Council initiated a new method of appointing commission members – effectively ending the terms of the seven-member board and appointing new planning commissioners from a fresh set of applications collected by city staff over the last two months. While current members of the Planning Commission were to be officially removed Monday, they were eligible to reapply for seats along with other members of the community. (The new appoinments were made after the Index-Tribune went to press Monday evening.)

The Council approved its new commission appointment policy in September, which allows each individual council member to select a commission appointee out of a pool of applicants. Each commission appointee serves throughout the term of the council member who appointed them.

The new system replaces the city’s previous process which gave the sitting mayor the task of nominating potential new commissioners, with the full council weighing in for approval – a process that resulted in multiple council debates the last two years when council members had challenged mayoral nominees.

Still, last week the “old” planning commission had several unfinished items to attend to before calling it a day.

The seven items were all originally on the Nov. 9 agenda, but since one of them – consideration of the affordable housing development at 20269 Broadway – was a contentious issue for a variety of reasons, the commission only got through two of the seven at that meeting, and scheduled a special session for Nov. 16 to take up the others.

The housing project from Satellite Affordable Housing Agency – or, SAHA – was itself back for a second hearing before the commission.

The housing proposal for the 1.98-acre lot at 20269 Broadway, includes 48 residences of one-, two- and three-bedroom units for low- and extremely-low-income candidates, plus parking for 75 vehicles and a community center. The Planning Commission members – notably Robert MacDonald, who drilled down on multiple issues of design, architecture, and landscaping – got what they asked for in the revised presentation, according to SAHA’s project manager Adam Kuperman.

“Ultimately we developed a design that was based on the history of the site and took into account the surrounding neighborhood and its location on Broadway,” said Kuperman.

Still, the commission was far from unified in their approval of the project. At one point Commissioner McDonald suggested they approve half the proposal, the environmental review and mitigated negative declaration, but hold over the approval of the use permit, site design and architectural review to the new planning commission.

City Planning Director David Goodison was leery of that suggestion. Were that motion to pass, he said, “the Planning Commission would be continuing the review of the use permit and the design review and the site planning, to a commission that might be totally different.”

“I don’t think that would be fair to that commission, I don’t think it would be fair to the project, I don’t think it would be a good public process,” he said.

Commission Chair James Cribb agreed with Goodison, and followed up with a motion to accept the negative declaration and approve the use permit, with certain conditions of approval – including encouraging subsequent reviews to have a full understanding of the planning commission’s comments.

Cribb motion was approve both resolutions at the same time – but it failed by a 2-3 vote.

However, moments later, Commissioner McDonald made a similar motion, attaching to it a number of more specific traffic, design and architecture concerns – and that motion passed 3-2, with McDonald providing the swing vote.

“We did get an approval, that was the ultimate resolution,” said Kuperman later. “We are very excited to be bringing 48 new homes to the city of Sonoma in the future.”

The other matter on the Nov. 9 agenda was a proposal for a 30-unit apartment project – the Oliva Apartments, at 655 W. Spain St. That development – four buildings on a 1.5-acre lot originally owned by the Norrbom family – came from DeNova Homes of Concord. It includes 56 parking spaces, and is adjacent to a recently-completed development at the corner of West Spain Street and Fifth Street West. There are six units in the affordable housing category, per city code.

The actions expected of the Planning Commission were very similar as those for the SAHA project – adopt a mitigated negative declaration and approve a use permit, with an exception to parking dimensions (six inches less than standard) reduced to allow for more landscaping.

The initial presentation from DeNova was made more than a year ago, so the commission’s newest member James Bohar had to play catch-up with the proposal.

That and other commissioner concerns led Cribb to initially move to defer a vote until the following meeting, a proposal that drew an impassioned objection from the developer, who said: “I can’t tell you the number of people who have called DeNova homes asking us when they can get a unit – we need to get this project moving.”

That prompted Commissioner Michael Coleman to move to “put it to a vote, once and for all,” which elicited a unanimous vote in favor, 5 - 0.

That commission’s final meeting on Nov. 16 featured simpler issues – exceptions to wall height standards, setbacks, an accessory dwelling unit and the removal of an additional tree from a four-lot subdivision. They were passed with almost unanimous votes.

With that, the gavel came down on Sonoma’s 2017 Planning Commission, allowing a new commission to be nominated and seated by the City Council at its Nov. 20 meeting.

“I do think it notable that in our penultimate meeting we approved 73 new units of housing for this community,” said Cribb, the chair of the outgoing Planning Commission and an applicant for the next one. “And of those, 50-some will be at some level of affordability.

“I’m not sure that’s ever happened before in any planning commission. I think it was a nice way for us as a group to finish.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.