Schocken Hill home proposals denied by City Council

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Despite an open threat of litigation from supporters of proposals to build three large homes on the side of Schocken Hill, the Sonoma City Council upheld an appeal of the controversial project which had become Sonoma’s first big test of its 15-year-old “hillside ordinance.”

Following more than four hours of presentations and public comment, the council voted 3-2, with councilmembers David Cook and Gary Edwards against, to uphold the appeal of the projects. According to city officials, it was the first time the city’s “hillside ordinance” had been at play before the City Council.

City officials had convened the April 10 meeting – which was essentially a continuation of its March 1 special council meeting – in order to revisit its consideration of the appeal of the Sonoma Planning Commission’s approval of three home-development proposals – collectively called the Fourth Street East Project – Sonoma resident Bill Jasper’s proposal to build three homes on three adjoining parcels he owns at the end of Fourth Street East, on the slopes of Schocken Hill.

The project was approved by the 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.

While the three homes are on adjacent lots across 7.5 acres of the hill and share many common factors, the City Council considered them as three separate proposals, located at 149 Fourth St. E., Brazil Street Lot 228 and Brazil Street Lot 227.

The project has faced opposition from both neighbors and some local watchdogs of the city’s “hillside ordinance,” a set of development guidelines established in 2003 to preserve the town’s unfettered hillside backdrop and ensure limits on development. Project critics said the overall size of the homes and their accessory structures, as well as the planned removal of dozens of mature trees, are in violation of the hillside ordinance.

Supporters of the project, however, argued the remaining trees – and regrowth from newly planted trees – would render the development largely hidden from view. Additionally, project applicants said that the limits placed by the hillside ordinance are merely guidelines, not requirements – as is evident, they said, in that prior projects built lower on the hill had received city approval despite not adhering to the guidelines. As project architect Clare Walton said in an April 4 letter to the City Council, “By definition, a guideline is a ‘recommended but not mandatory control.’”

The crux of the disagreement centered upon how much square footage the ordinance allows for the total size of the development’s “pads,” which in general refers to the areas of the hill that need to be flattened in order to build livable spaces, such as a house, garage or yard.

According to the design guidelines of the hillside ordinance:

“Lot pad grading should be limited to the boundaries of the structure’s foundation, vehicle parking space and a yard area as shown on the approved grading plan. Pads should not exceed 5,000 square feet in total area.”

According to city staff, included as part of a lot’s pad are all buildings, terraces, patios and leveled yard areas. So, for instance, the project’s largest lot at 149 Fourth St. E. would combine the areas of the proposals’ buildings, pool, decks, parking and yard areas for a total pad size of 19,462 square feet. The city calculated the pads of the other two parcels – lots 227 and 228 – at 6,923 square feet and 10,458 square feet, respectively.

City staff said the lot-pad guidelines establish a “recommended maximum combined area of all pads on a parcel” which, according to staff, means the project’s lot pad size “greatly exceeds the guideline.”

But the applicants insisted that whether the the project met the guidelines or not was, by this point, immaterial. The project’s legal team argued that the Planning Commission approval of the project was protected under the state Housing Accountability Act, a law originally passed in 1982 to promote the creation of housing by limiting a city’s ability to deny housing projects that meet a city’s “general plan and zoning standards.”

According to the project’s attorney Ryan Patterson, that the Planning Commission found the project to be in compliance with the hillside ordinance “will be all the evidence a court will need to decide this.”

“If you deny the projects tonight you will be subjecting the city to substantial liability under the HAA that requires you to pay successful applicants’ attorneys fees, likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as your own,” warned Patterson.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, project supporters decried the paramators of the ordinance, with residents such as Suzanne Brangham expressing surprise that so many accessory features would be included in the 5,000-square-feet limit. “Swimming pools... driveways, parking space, yards – we do not live in (those things),” said Brangham.

Valley resident Gary Nelson also supported the project. “We have an applicant who has abided by the rules of the city,” said Nelson. “There should be no question about his right to build on his property.”

But the project critics in attendance outnumbered those in favor by about three to one, with many echoing former mayor Ken Brown – who was among the council members who passed the hillside ordinance in 2003 – who said the “intent is to limit the pad size to 5,000 square feet. Period.”

There was little debate among the council as to the intent of the ordinance, nor about whether the projects exceeded its 5,000-square-foot limit.

Councilmember Gary Edwards, however, said he supported approval of the projects “as a defensive move,” suggesting that by approving the three hillside projects now, it would prevent a future council from possibly approving an even more oversized project at some point down the road.

Councilmember David Cook also voiced his support, saying, “There’s too much interpretation (of the hillside ordinance) here, there’s no way I can deny this project.”

However, in her vote to deny the projects, Councilmember Rachel Hundley said the ordinance allows for an exemption to the guidelines only if a “substantial reason” exists to do so – and said no such reason had been offered by the project applicants.

Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti echoed Councilmember Amy Harrington’s insistence that the proposals were “subject to the development code” and the divided council voted to uphold the project appeal. City staff will next prepare resolutions to uphold the appeals and deny each of the three residential projects; those will be scheduled for review by the Council at a future meeting.

According to City Manager Cathy Capriola, the applicant will be able to re-apply to the Planning Commission with revised proposals, which would be treated as new applications.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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