In an unusually charged and crowded Planning Commission hearing on Thursday, March 23, advocates of and objectors to the mixed-use development known as the First Street East Project packed the Community Meeting Room to consider the need for a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.
The tension even preceded the hearing, as earlier in the day longtime Commissioner Chip Roberson resigned from the body – in protest over the failure of fellow Commissioner Ron Wellander to be renominated at the end of his first term by Mayor Rachel Hundley. The double vacancy meant that the newly selected alternate, James Bohar, took a commissioner’s seat for the first time that night – learning of his promotion only minutes before the meeting began.
Adding to the drama, Commissioner Bill Willers was also absent, possibly at least in part because his neutrality was questioned by backers of the FSE Project.
“Until that question is resolved, he has decided not to participate in review of this project,” said City Planner David Goodison.
But the Pledge of Allegiance that opened the meeting didn’t end the polarization: Shortly after, public comment kicked off with J.J. Abodeely, an investor in the FSE Project, challenging the newly-seated Bohar over his objectivity, citing a statement made at an earlier Planning Commission hearing on the project, where Bohar spoke as a resident during public comment.
Bohar did not respond to Abodeely’s charge, and Goodison swiftly cut the speaker off, as public comment is intended for topics not appearing on the agenda.
Noting the size and passion of the crowd – every seat in the Community Meeting Room was taken, as were all the seats in the two overflow anterooms – Chairman James Cribb said he’d hold fast to the three-minute rule for public comment, but allowed both the applicant, Caymus Capital, and the opposing group, Protect Sonoma, a full 15 minutes to deliver statements in support and opposed.
Cribb also emphasized that the meeting was to determine the need for a CEQA study – other topics, such parking and aesthetics, that were not covered by CEQA would not be allowed.
“There will be no other decisions made tonight other than to direct staff to do further studies for environmental review,” said Cribb; and at the end of the meeting, that was exactly the decision reached by the five-member commission.
But that decision was still four hours, and about 30 public comments, later. The Caymus presentation primarily consisted of a new video promoting the benefits of “a unique opportunity as a smart, mixed-use development for a more sustainable Sonoma.”
The opportunities cited included 32 new homes “for Sonoma families,” a café as a community gathering place and meeting space, job creation, an annuity stream to the City’s general fund, and “significant local economic benefit through the multiplier effect of tourist spending.”
After the video, architect Doug Hilberman of Santa Rosa’s Axia Architets underscored a couple of its key points, adding that one thing that was not covered were some of the innovations in parking they planned, including an elevated courtyard over the parking area.
Speaking for Protect Sonoma, the neighborhood action group formed in response to the FSE Project by the North of Mission Neighborhood Association, was Sheila O’Neill, a mortgage broker in Sonoma who said she was chosen because she “wasn’t afraid of talking in front of people.”