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Final vote on Gateway Project delayed by Sonoma City Council

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In a move that could carry repercussions for a tentatively approved housing proposal at 899 Broadway, the Sonoma City Council on Monday delayed a final vote on the project in order to await a state ruling on whether Councilmember Amy Harrington would have to recuse herself from the final decision.

The delay drew swift rebukes from the project developers who later in the week threatened legal action against the city if the project isn’t approved.

What’s been dubbed the Gateway Project – a proposed mix of 33 residential units and 3,100 square feet of commercial space at the long-abandoned site of the old Sonoma Truck and Auto – was initially approved May 10 by the Sonoma Planning Commission. An appeal of the decision, filed by neighbors, was subsequently denied last month in a 3-2 vote by the Sonoma City Council, with council members Amy Harrington and Rachel Hundley dissenting.

It appeared at the time that the Gateway Project was in the clear to move forward.

But, as former councilmember Ken Brown quipped at this week’s council meeting, “Nothing is easy.”

When the council met Nov. 5 – in which the project appeared on the “consent calendar,” an often perfunctory final vote by the council – Councilmember Amy Harrington, a practicing attorney, raised concern over whether the recent relocation of her attorney’s office to space at 846 Broadway, directly adjacent to the Gateway Project site, would create a conflict of interest.

Harrington asked the council to hold off on its vote and allow her time to seek guidance from the state Fair Political Practices Commission about a potential recusal. The FPPC requests at least 21 days to issue such a ruling but, noted Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola, its response times can often take longer. The current council’s next scheduled meeting is Dec. 3, but there’s no guarantee an FPPC decision will be made by then.

If the FPPC takes longer than 21 days to decide on Harrington’s standing, the delayed vote could run up against the Dec. 10 meeting in which newly elected council member Logan Harvey will be seated behind the dais, following his victory in the Nov. 6 election in which Councilmember Gary Edwards, who has voted in support of the Gateway Project, did not seek re-election. If the new council is seated when the continued vote returns to the agenda, the 3-2 denial of the appeal could swing the other way, ostensibly putting its planning commission approval in jeopardy.

Edwards described Harrington’s request to move the vote as a “delay tactic.”

“This is a slap in the face of affordable housing,” Edwards said, referring to the project’s eight 486-square-feet one-bedroom apartments. “It’s interesting that all of a sudden you just decide to move. I just think it’s a delay tactic. Period.”

Harrington, in response, said the suggestion that she would move her office near the project solely to delay its approval vote was “insane.”

“To accuse me of that is shocking,” said Harrington. “I am asking to get an FPPC letter. That’s not destroying affordable housing in Sonoma.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Gateway Project developer Scot Hunter pleaded with the council to “take your vote tonight,” pointing out that with the 3-2 vote in favor of the project, whether Harrington recused herself or voted against it, the outcome would remain the same if the vote were taken that night.

“You were against this project, have been against this project, so it’s pretty safe to say where you’ll come down on this,” Hunter said, addressing Harrington. “So we ask you to move forward with a vote.”

Project attorney Jennifer Hernandez also directed her comments at Harrington, saying that, “With all due respect, you lost that vote (on the appeal)” and that it “feels like the delay is another opportunity to revisit the loss of that vote.”

Hernandez said that given that such a continuance is “likely to last several months that, frankly, it feels like the wrong end of a vote being delayed.”

Councilmember Rachel Hundley, who had previously joined Harrington in supporting the appeal of the project, stressed the importance of “procedure.”

“It’s bigger than any specific decision we make,” said Hundley. “We have to make everything as legitimate as possible.” She said it would be “irresponsible to proceed.”

Though Councilmember David Cook and Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti had previously joined Edwards in denying the appeal of the Gateway Project, they conceded to Harrington’s request to put off the vote and the continuance passed 4-1.

Agrimonti qualified her “yes” vote by saying that, while she thought a continuance at this point in the process wasn’t fair to the developer, she was placing her trust in Harrington that it wasn’t a delay tactic.

“I respect my colleagues and I will accept the continuance,” said Agrimonti. “But I am not happy about it because I do not think it’s an honorable thing to do tonight.”

On Nov. 8, Gateway Project applicants, Broadway and MacArthur LLC, sent a letter to the City of Sonoma and Mayor Agrimonti threatening legal action if the project were to be rejected. Citing stipulations under the state Housing Accountability Act – a 1982 law which narrowly restricts a city’s latitude in rejecting housing proposals so long as they conform to city requirements – the letter suggests the city would be liable for between $300,000 and $1.5 million, plus attorneys fees, if the council were to ultimately reject the project.

Hunter, a Sonoma resident, told the Index-Tribune that he’s “not comfortable threatening legal action against the city where (he lives).” But he suspects the last-minute delay is a strategy to kill the project.

“If it’s an attempt to get us in front of a new council, that is just wrong,” said Hunter. “We have a very very strong case. We hope this is a wakeup call – it’s about housing, it’s a good project.”

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.