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Jason Walsh: Round and round the Planning Commission goes...

Call it: Musical planning commissioners.

That’s what it must seem like to locals eyeing the First Street East Project, the controversial mixed-use proposal on a 3.4-acre parcel a stone’s throw – if you’ve got a good arm – from the Plaza.

The pitch from developer Caymus Construction is for a 32-room residential, 30-unit inn complex with two pools, a spa and café. Neighbors are already entrenched in staunch opposition to the development; project backers are hoping that some level of compromise will see the development to fruition.

Both sides are counting on a stable Sonoma Planning Commission to carry out its due diligence and offer thoughtful and reasonable oversight to the proposal, while providing steady guardianship of the character of the neighborhood.

That’s a lot to ask with a Planning Commission in this amount of flux.

For those who have lost track, here’s a brief tally of seat changes since the First Street East Project initially came to the Planning Commission more than a year ago (way back when it was still called “the Cloisters”).

Robert McDonald and Mary Sek have replaced former commissioners Robert Felder and Mark Heneveld, who were recently termed out.

Ron Wellender, after two years on the commission, was up for a possible reappointment, but Mayor Rachel Hundley elected not to re-nominate him for what would have been a second term, this time for four years.

In response to the surprise non-nomination of Wellender, longtime Commissioner Chip Roberson resigned his seat the following day, describing Hundley’s move as political and saying it “was a final straw for me.” (Roberson was in his final year of eligibility for the Commission.)

James Bohar, only recently appointed as a Commission “alternate,” inherits the seat of Wellender; Hundley told the I-T she prefers Bohar’s experience in housing issues – he was a commercial real-estate broker in the East Bay prior to moving to Sonoma five years ago -- especially as the city nears a General Plan update.

Bill Willers recently recused himself from entertaining the First Street East Project, after an episode in which he publically voiced an opinion about his vote on the proposal before the item had been brought to the Commission.

So already out of a seven-member commission, five of the seats have altered significantly since the FSE plan first came to the board.

And it may alter some more.

First, Hundley has signaled that she’s open to making a change on the Commission if she feels a reappointment isn’t warranted. That could be a concern for Mike Coleman, who was appointed to his seat two years ago under protest from councilmembers Hundley and Gary Edwards, who vigorously questioned his qualifications (he’s a firefighter by trade). Like Wellender, Coleman will seek a re-nomination from Hundley later this spring.

Second, past public comments about FSE from Wellender’s replacement on the commission, James Bohar, have already come under scrutiny.

During the Planning Commission nomination process, the two-person City Council committee charged with interviewing commission hopefuls – Hundley and Amy Harrington – asked candidates if they’ve ever previously gone on the record in their opinions about upcoming projects that would come before the Planning Commission.

It’s a question intended to weed out any candidates who would have to recuse themselves from important votes – such as Commissioner Willers regarding the First Street East project.

Bohar, who lives on First Street West, told the I-T that he responded to the councilmembers’ question by saying that hadn’t spoken publically “in opposition” to any potential projects before the Commission.

However, the minutes from the March 24, 2016 Planning Commission meeting, which addressed an earlier iteration of the First Street East proposal (then called the Cloisters), may not be “oppositional,” but they certainly reflect an initial skepticism about the project:

“Jim Bohar, resident, First Street West, is disappointed with the mixed use designation and guidelines as applied to the neighborhood and felt this type of proposal might start a negative trend. In his view, the commercialization of this area is not appropriate and should be rejected.”

Bohar, who says he didn’t even learn he’d been elevated to a full-born member of the Planning Commission until a few minutes prior to Thursday’s meeting, addressed last year’s public comments in a statement to the Index-Tribune:

“As a 20-year resident of First Street West, I have attended many Planning Commission and City Council meetings over the years. Last year, as a private citizen, I attended at least two preliminary study sessions on earlier iterations on the SFE project. Now I am on the Planning Commission. I understand that I am acting in a different role and will be looking at the revised FSE project with fresh eyes, especially as it is substantially different from the previous development concepts.”

Hundley said she was unaware of Bohar’s comments from a year ago, not that he lived on First Street West, but didn’t anticipate that they’d rise to the level of having to recuse himself. And perhaps they won’t.

But the Bohar situation is an example of the ever-evolving nature of the Planning Commission, which is seeing more jarring climbs and drops these days than my kids’ Chutes and Ladders board – and at a time when big projects are around the corner, not to mention a General Plan update.

Call it musical planning commissioners. But if Sonoma’s going to win, it had better be sure there’s enough seats left when the music stops.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.