Schocken Hill developers to sue City of Sonoma

Applicants for a city-rejected proposal to develop three large homes on Schocken Hill followed through on threats of litigation this week, when they filed suit against the City of Sonoma and the Sonoma City Council to force city officials' hands at allowing the controversial project to proceed.

The suit was filed with Sonoma County Superior Court on June 29 on behalf of Sonoma resident Bill Jasper, the trustee of the three adjacent lots on Schocken Hill, as well as co-petitioners 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 those nonprofits' co-leaders: Oakland resident Victoria Fierce and San Francisco resident Sonja Trauss, both density-development advocates who say the rejection of the Schocken Hill homes deny them access to living in Sonoma.

Jasper is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which publishes the Index-Tribune.

Both the City of Sonoma and Jasper declined to comment on the lawsuit.

This latest turn in the ongoing dispute over a proposal for homes near the end of Fourth Street East on the side of Schocken Hill is the first since April 9, when the City Council upheld in a vote of 3-2 an appeal of city Planning Commission approval of what became known as the Fourth Street East Project, essentially killing the proposal and sending project applicants back to the drawing board.

The project was initially approved by a depleted Planning Commission in a 3-1 vote last Sept. 14, but that decision was appealed to the council by neighbors Arthur Grandy and Steve MacRostie.

The crux of the city's narrow rejection of the proposal was the city's 15-year-old “hillside ordinance,” which limits the size of hillside development within view of the downtown area to building areas – or “pads,” as the ordinance calls them – to 5,000 square feet each. All three Schocken Hill homes proposed as part of the three-pronged Fourth Street East Project were above that, according to city staff, at 19,462, 10,458 and 6,923 square feet.

But, in the lawsuit, attorneys for the Fourth Street East Project describe that as a “novel and politically driven interpretation” of the hillside ordinance, which they say is merely a “guideline” for city officials to consider, and not a requirement under city code.

And within that theory that the hillside ordinance is not a requirement, project attorneys say, the city is bound by state law to approve the project under the Housing Accountability Act, which limits the ability of local governments to restrict the development of new housing projects as long as they adhere to local code requirements.

Signed into law in 1982 and amended as recently as 2017, the HAA has been referred to as the “anti-NIMBY” law, and the legislation calls itself an attempt to curb the “activities and policies of many local governments that limit the approval of housing” which result in the “discrimination against low-income and minority households, lack of housing to support employment growth, imbalance in jobs and housing, reduced mobility, urban sprawl, excessive commuting, and air quality deterioration.”

While the “hillside ordinance” and the HAA are at the heart of the lawsuit, plaintiffs also contest what they allege was an “ex parte,” or unfairly one-sided, communication between Sonoma City Councilmember Amy Harrington and an opponent of the Fourth Street East Project, as well as Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti's cutting off of project supporter Joe Aaron's public comment during the April 9 council meeting, as he attempted to make allegations against Harrington as to the supposed ex-parte communication.

Both Harrington and Agrimonti, along with Councilmember Rachel Hundley, voted April 9 to uphold the appeal; Councilmembers David Cook and Gary Edwards were against.

As such, the lawsuit alleges “the city acted unlawfully in denying the Use Permit applications” under the HAA, and “violated Jasper's right to a fair hearing.”

The suit is asking the court for a “mandate to reverse the Sonoma City Council's resolutions denying the projects and to order the City of Sonoma to approve the projects, or to conduct a rehearing from which Councilmember Harrington is recused.”

If Harrington were to be recused from a potential rehearing, and the remaining four council members voted as they did April 9, the appeal would be denied and the Planning Commission's approval of the project would stand.

While a lawsuit from Jasper and the Fourth Street East Project was somewhat expected – project attorney Ryan Patterson warned of the city's “substantial liability under the HAA” during the April 9 council meeting, other plaintiffs might not be as familiar to locals who've been watching the Fourth Street East Project play out in recent months.

Co-plaintiffs Victoria Fierce and Sonja Trauss are co-leaders of the groups CaRLA, a nonprofit dedicated to upholding enforcement of the Housing Accountability Act, and the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation, or SFBARF. They've been part of alleged HAA-violation lawsuits against the City of Sausalito, the City of San Mateo, the City of Berkeley and the City of Lafayette. As legal wings of the so-called YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) pro-development movement, they join as plaintiffs in such lawsuits as examples of people who would be eligible to apply for residency in the developments that have been denied.

Eligible to apply or not, Trauss isn't likely applying for a home in Sonoma anytime soon – she's currently running for District 6 Supervisor in San Francisco to represent the city's South of Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods where, as she told the San Francisco Examiner recently, she's “planning to raise her family.”

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