City of Sonoma approves environmental consultant for Schocken Hill homes

The proposal, first submitted in 2016, would bring three luxury homes to the hillside at Fourth Street East at Brazil Street.|

The Sonoma City Council selected an environmental consultant to oversee the application for a controversial residential project that would bring three luxury homes to Schocken Hill in Sonoma.

The project, first proposed in 2016, calls for two 5,000-square-foot homes at 227 and 228 Brazil St., and an 11,000-square-foot main residence at 149 Fourth St. E. At the request of the city, the applicant reduced the total project footprint by more than 12,000 square feet in its latest application.

However, records show more changes are needed before the application meets the city’s requirement for fire access, elevation and other adjustments requested by the Sonoma Planning Department. Once the developer, Bill Jasper, submits an updated application that the city deems “complete,” the environmental review can begin.

Jasper is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, the parent company of the Index-Tribune. Jasper did not immediately respond to requests for comment by publication of this story.

During its meeting on Aug. 16, the city council approved a new contract with the Dallas-based environmental consultant AECOM, a firm familiar with the project. In 2021, when the city requested proposals from environmental firms, AECOM was one of two companies that began to work up a project plan. Their proposal was rescinded, however, following communication with the applicant that the city deemed “inappropriate” in its efforts to influence the consultants. Sonoma now requires any communication with the developer to flow through city channels to ensure transparency.

AECOM will begin by reviewing all studies and reports related to the project to determine whether any of the documents on file, some of which are years old, need to be updated, according to city staff. The firm will also make suggestions about what level of environmental review is required. The options range from a minor review for $45,280, to a full-blown environmental impact report for $211,310. All costs will be paid by the applicant.

While city staff will review AECOM’s recommendation, it will ultimately be up to the city council to determine what depth of environmental report is needed to meet the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Brief History

In 2017, after a lengthy debate, the Sonoma Planning Commission signed off on Jasper’s proposal with a 3-2 vote. But neighbors Arthur Grandy and Steve MacRostie appealed to the city council, saying the project violated the city’s Hillside Home ordinance, which limits the size of development on the city’s undeveloped, rolling hills.

Neighbors argued that, according to the 2003 ordinance, the total project size should be limited to 5,000-square-foot construction pads, including all pools, accessory buildings and infrastructure. Jasper’s team maintained that only the houses must be limited to 5,000 square feet, and submitted a plan that originally called for a total pad size of 17,740 square feet for the primary residence on the largest parcel at Fourth Street East.

In April 2018, the council sided with the neighbors with a 3-2 vote to uphold the appeal. In response, Jasper partnered with the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund and the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation – a pair of litigation-ready regional housing advocacy nonprofits – and sued the city for violating the Housing Accountability Act, which limits local oversight on residential projects.

“If you deny the projects tonight you will be subjecting the city to substantial liability under the (Housing Accountability Act in 2017) that requires you to pay successful applicants’ attorneys fees, likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as your own,” warned Ryan Patterson, the project’s attorney, at the time.

The suit was settled in 2021, allowing Jasper to bypass the Sonoma Planning Commission to take his hillside homes proposal straight to the city council for approval. As part of the settlement, Jasper agreed to suspend litigation while he submitted a revised application to develop the three parcels with a smaller total project footprint.

That same year, as the city council prepared to consider a contract with the environmental consulting firm Dudek, it became aware of what officials described as “troubling” communication between Jasper’s team and the firm.

“(Our knowledge of the communication) strongly implied that Mr. Jasper was attempting to influence the (Dudek) consultant in terms of what the consultant should be looking for in terms of the level of environmental analysis that should be conducted for the three homes that are subject to (the project) application,” Sonoma City Attorney Jeffrey Walter told the city council in 2021.

The contract with Dudek was scrapped. City council members said they were particularly concerned that an earlier proposal from AECOM was rescinded after the firm had also been contacted by the applicant. But officials with AECOM immediately informed the city about the communication, which made city officials more comfortable working with the firm on the new environmental review process.

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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