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Jason Walsh: Fear and housing in Sonoma

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If you build it, they will come.

It’s a famous line from the beloved baseball-loving/cheater-forgiving classic “Field of Dreams,” but in other, non-Kevin Costner guises, the sentiment still holds true. Make something better – give people a reason to come – and they will come.

And that, it seems, is of what Sonoma is so afraid.

The concept crystallized recently in a housing study conducted by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which examined the housing policies undertaken in Alameda County, and applied metrics to determine which programs were most effective.

Alameda, obviously, has striking differences to Sonoma, not the least of which include income, urbanization, cultural demographics, average age and the nature of their two economies. But the study, while conceding such demographic differences between Alameda and other Bay Area communities, also held that many factors in housing policy hold true in varying degrees from community to community, city to city, region to region. For instance, building housing near transit hubs is a generally accepted best practice, as it increases public transportation, takes cars off the road, reduces vehicle trips through town and discourages sprawl. The study was also dubious to the benefits of rent control, which it says dis-incentivizes the building of apartments, as well as – get this, Sonoma! – limiting short-term vacation rentals, because it could deny property owners the secondary income they need to afford their primary homes. The Bay Area Council Economic Institute is a generally pro-business think tank, so it should come as no surprise some of its findings are welcome news to property owners.

According to the report, if Alameda were to merely impose the policies deemed to have a “positive” impact on housing affordability, it would move about 12 percent of its “housing insecure” residents into a more affordable situation.

But the bottom line, according to the BACEI, is that the most effective way to create more housing affordability is to build more housing.

And it is that reality that so confounds Sonoma – a community whose hearts ache for its residents priced out of the community, yet can’t seem to muster the wherewithal to wholeheartedly support projects that might ease the burden.

Just last week community members filed a challenge to the Sonoma Planning Commission’s approval of what’s being called the Gateway Project, a mixed-use proposal to build 35 housing units – ranging in size from 486-square-foot apartments to mid-size 2- and 3-bedroom townhouses to a trio of 2,934-square-foot homes, as well as a 3,500-square-foot retail space – at the site of the old Sonoma Truck & Auto on Broadway. The appeal cites inadequate environmental review and insufficient parking and traffic analysis, among its list of question marks. It’s the latest appeal of an ambitious housing project; recently in January, the Sonoma City Council denied an appeal by neighbors of the Altamira Apartments, a 48-unit low-income-housing project at 20269 Broadway. Critics of that proposal also cited environmental review and poor traffic analysis. It’s as predictable as the tides.

Of course, that doesn’t imply opposition to a project isn’t warranted. It’s clear that some development proposals require strong environmental review, others would create a traffic or parking problem, still others might flaunt city code. Perhaps the Gateway Project is one of them – the City Council will make that call soon enough.

The Council will also have to make the call on the Planning Commission’s approval in April of a plan to reinvent the Sonoma Cheese Factory as a smaller version of the Oxbow Market in Napa. That 5-2 decision was appealed to the Council, essentially under the premise that it would be too much of a draw – that it would bring too much business to the downtown business district.

If there was ever a town that seems to struggle with reconciling its big-tent values with its small-town identity, it’s Sonoma – whose tourist-driven economy brings in equal parts prosperity and resentment. And whose desire for the next generation to build a future in Sonoma is inextricably linked to Sonoma’s future of building.

For Sonoma to ever solve its housing crisis, it will be because the city dared to evolve, to grow, to change. To become a different Sonoma.

Because if you build it, they will come.

And that, it seems, is of what Sonoma is so afraid.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.