Donald Street residents cry foul over Springs plan

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Residents of a street just north of the Sonoma city limits are challenging their street’s inclusion in the Springs Specific Plan, a Sonoma County project to guide development along the Highway 12 corridor, an area unofficially dubbed the Springs.

The county’s Springs Specific Plan has been in the works since 2012 and is intended to map out the future of the area along Highway 12, from Verano Avenue to Agua Caliente Road, toward a “more vibrant and pedestrian oriented community,” according to the plan’s overview.

But the residents of Donald and adjoining streets say the neighborhood has never been considered part of the Springs, a group of loosely-defined communities in the unincorporated Sonoma Valley, usually thought to include El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters and Agua Caliente.

“Our shock and dismay is that our area was included as part of the Springs,” said Gary DeSmet, a long-time middle school teacher in Sonoma and resident of the area. “This matters, we feel, because this reality kept us from following the Springs Specific Plan.”

The neighborhood in question is in non-incorporated northwest Sonoma, to the east of what is commonly thought of as the Springs corridor. The corridor generally runs along Donald Street parallel to Verano between the Sonoma Highway and 5th Street East, and includes parts of Robinson Road, Harley Street, a block of Lomita Avenue and the north side of Verano with approximately 100 homes.

But it’s not the lines on the map that matter, and not even the identification with the Springs, says DeSmet. Instead, he and his neighbors are concerned about the possibility that 2 acres of undeveloped land behind the Iglesia Cristiana Lighthouse, at 700 Verano Ave., are targeted for development into high-density affordable housing.

“I wasn’t naïve to think there would never be buildings on that land,” said Ricci Wheatley, who lives on Robinson Street near the empty lots. In January, Wheatley says she learned of pending zoning changes not only on the empty lots, but on most properties in the area, including her own. She began asking neighbors if they knew anything about these changes, and found that almost no one did.

That was worrisome enough for about 100 people to show up at a recent community meeting for the Springs Specific Plan, held March 6 at the Sonoma Regional Library, armed with a slate of questions for 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who’s been involved in the plan since its inception, and Kyle Rabellino of Permit Sonoma, the new project manager for the Springs Specific Plan.

Rabellino has replaced Yolanda Solano in the management role, after Solano shepherded the plan through the last four years of community meetings, hearings and other opportunity for public input, including a presentation to the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission in August.

At the August meeting of the Advisory Commission, Solano said that the 2-acre open area could be rezoned to accommodate high-density residential development.

The county has made it a priority to add 30,000 additional housing units in the next five years, with an emphasis on affordable housing.

In the meantime, Gary and Vicki DeSmet contacted Gorin’s office in January asking for a meeting to talk about their concerns, and Gorin suggested turning it into a community meeting – and the March 6 meeting at the library was scheduled.

At the March 6 meeting Gorin told the packed room that any government plan for a community is better when the neighborhoods are involved.

“I come from where you stand,” she told the room. “I’ve always been a neighborhood advocate. This is the most important time to be involved in the planning process.”

Rabellino stressed that the Springs Specific Plan was “a draft, not a project.”

Still, one attendee described the meeting as “heated,” another said “unruly.”

The Donald-area residents, dubbed Friends of North Sonoma on their Facebook page, had several questions for the county officials.

Most of the questions focused on proposed zoning changes to the area that appear to open the door to higher-density housing, possibly with an emphasis on low-income tenants. The Friends of North Sonoma made it a point to say they weren’t against affordable housing, and had no objection to the Springs as a neighborhood – they just see themselves as closer to Sonoma than the Springs, and don’t believe their 50-year-old neighborhood of narrow lots is the right fit for such development.

“We’re not opposed to growth at all, but high density scares us,” said DeSmet.

Gorin, Rabellino and Permit Sonoma’s Amy Lyle sought to downplay those concerns.

“I want to assure you, you haven’t been incorporated into the Springs,” said Gorin. “(But) there needs to be appropriate growth to meet the needs of the (larger) community.”

Referencing the high cost of home ownership and rentals in the region, Gorin said, “In a perfect world everybody who works here would have a home in the Valley. This is not that perfect world.”

By the end of the nearly-two-hour meeting, members of both sides came away with a fresh perspective. “It was a venting,” said DeSmet. “When you’re hot you’ve got to depressurize. But I do feel that we were heard.”

Wheatley, whose research into local zoning changes sparked the neighborhood revolt, agreed, adding that Gorin “definitely realized a lot of her constituents were upset. But I think we’ve got a lot more work ahead of us.”

“I think it was a good opportunity for the community to come together,” said Gorin. “A number of people told me they hadn’t really known their neighbors until this came up. That’s the silver lining.”

Maggie Fleming, spokesperson for Permit Sonoma, told the Index-Tribune following the meeting that county officials were planning a follow-up meeting in about a month’s time. "Supervisor Gorin has asked some of the Donald neighborhood leaders to gather 4-6 neighbors to work with Permit Sonoma," Fleming wrote to the Index-Tribune. "The project planner will meet with neighborhood representatives to hear about their community identity and needs, and to respond to their specific questions."

There will not be any decisions or agreements made at this meeting, said Fleming. But when the draft Spring Specific Plan is ready to be released, perhaps as soon as a month, "the County will host a community meeting for all to attend to gather feedback on the draft."

This article clarifies the follow-up meetings planned by Supervisor Gorin, county staff, and Donald area residents.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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