Colorful debate over colorful design

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Almost 400 people turned out Monday evening to debate the merits of the façade improvement program along Highway 12 in the Springs.

At the end of the night, there were probably no minds changed.

But it came down to interpretation – and the county’s PRMD (Permit and Resource Management Department) has the last word.

PRMD Director Tennis Wick told the crowd that the 20-year-old guidelines apply to only new construction not to the façade improvement program. Wick said the guidelines are enforced with new development, not existing development and he pointed out that the new Sonoma Springs affordable housing project on Highway 12 had to conform to the guidelines.

The façade improvement program started in 2009 as part of the Springs Redevelopment Agency. The county put $575,000 in the pot the first year and had three tiers: A three-year forgivable loan of up to $5,000 for small-scale façade improvement projects such as paint, signage and awnings; a five-year forgivable loan of up to $15,000 for larger façade projects; and loans of up to $100,000 for commercial rehabilitation or renovation for commercial buildings. These could have a pay-back of up to 20 years but these loans are not forgivable like the other two types.

But the program died when the redevelopment agencies were dissolved in 2011.

The Supervisors brought it back in 2013 and extended it to the entire county.

Juan Hernandez, executive director at La Luz, said he found out about the program and reached out to the Community Development Commission to aid businesses along Highway 12. And brought it to the Springs Business Group, a group of businesses owners who meet at La Luz.

While talking about the program, one businesses owner, the owner of La Michoacana, said she was working with Rico Martin, a Sebastopol designer, and invited him to make a presentation to the group.

“We wanted to bring attention to the Springs,” Hernandez said. “And, we wanted to make sure that businesses had a choice (of designers). There was a common theme, every time we talked about it, we told them they have a choice.”

Eight businesses asked Martin to re-design their facades.

And that’s when some Springs residents decided they didn’t like the colorful paint schemes and they complained that they were left out of the process. Martin gave presentations to the Springs Community Alliance and the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission before he started.

But some residents said there wasn’t enough notice of the meetings. And that the 20-year-old guidelines weren’t followed.

The chirping got loud enough that Rich Lee, the head of the Springs Community Alliance, called for Monday’s community meeting that featured representatives of PRMD, CDC, business owners, Supervisor Susan Gorin and almost 400 Valley residents in a meeting that went almost three hours.

Those who liked the facades outnumbered those who didn’t – at one show of hands – by about a 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 margin.

Almost four-dozen people got to express their thoughts on the program.

Celeste Winders said she’s in the thick of it, “and I love it. I love the color. If you’re freaked out, you didn’t participate,” she said. “This is paint. This is art. Art isn’t forever. This is for now. enjoy it.”

Critic Gina Cuclis said it not about color. “People feel left out,” she said. “When that document (the guidelines) was created, we came together. This is a meeting that should have happened 14 months ago.”

Another person who helped draft the guidelines two decades ago was of a different mind.

“We’ve changed. We need to change,” said Cathy Wade Shepard. “I don’t want to see everything taken over by the minutia of process. When I see these colors, they make me happy.”

Wednesday, Cuclis said “I’m hoping that an outcome will be the business Springboard group which meets at La Luz will have gained an understanding of the need to communicate with the broader community, because people who live here care deeply about what happens on Highway 12 and want to be included in those discussions.”

Springs Community Alliance head Rich Lee said the current projects will proceed.

“We plan to have further discussions with the county about how, when and why the Highway 12 Design Guidelines are used or not used and see what if any changes can be made – including updating the guidelines themselves,” he said. “I would also hope that there will be a more deliberate attempt to get community input next time something like this comes along. We will be discussing this at the next SCA meeting on Aug. 13.”

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