Sonoma City Council to tackle city’s visions for future growth

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After nearly a month away from the dais, the Sonoma City Council returns to work on Monday, July 29, with nothing less than the future of the city and its growth on the agenda.

The marquee agenda item is a report from Sonoma Planning Director David Storer launching a study session on three of Sonoma’s most important future-facing initiatives: updates to both the city Housing Element and General Plan. and the possible renewal of the Urban Growth Boundary.

Required by state law, a city General Plan “expresses the community’s development goals and embodies public policy relative to the distribution of future land uses, both public and private,” according to Sonoma city staff.

It’s not just about zoning and land use, but developing and following a “community vision,” as the city describes it, “that is then translated into policies, programs and regulations.”

The General Plan is a forward-looking strategy; Sonoma’s first one was established in 1964, and every 10 years it’s usually been updated and revised. But the city’s most recent General Plan dates from 2006, called the 2020 General Plan. Though updated several times since then, as recently in 2016, city officials agree that Sonoma is long overdue for a new look at what its future direction will be.

The General Plan is an 80-page document available on the city’s website (sonomacity.org/general-plan) covering community development, local economy, and five “elements” including environmental resources, circulation (transportation flow), public safety, noise and housing.

Storer will be presenting a PowerPoint (also to be available on the city’s website) with information and suggestions on how and in what direction the next general plan – probably to be called Sonoma’s 2040 General Plan – will be developed and how to get there, including public engagement.

One element of the general plan, the Housing Element, comes up for a separate presentation, primarily because it’s a rapidly-evolving topic of high civic concern.

General plans and their elements are not just lofty goals: they have legal standing, and are embedded in the city’s civic code.

Though city limits are the anchor for any General Plan, they do not define the full extent of influence the plan covers. As the 2020 General Plan states, “With the growing interdependence of local governments, joint planning and procurement, and the increased prevalence of important issues that transcend local boundaries… it is becoming more important to consider the regional perspective.”

That means general plans usually extend beyond the legal city limits, at least to what’s called the “sphere of influence” (borders) which may be somewhat larger (though Sonoma’s sphere is almost identical with its city limits) and is taken to mean the “probable physical boundaries and service” of that city.

A related designation is the Urban Growth Boundary, a line around a city that contains development within its borders. All cities in the county have a UGB, and most of them have already renewed their UGBs into the future. Sonoma’s urban growth boundary was adopted in 2000 by public vote; it expires on the last day of 2020.

The Greenbelt Alliance, whose North Bay regional director is Teri Shore of Boyes Hot Springs, has already circulated a petition urging the Sonoma City Council to adopt the current UGB and renew it through a public vote. Shore is pushing for adoption because if this or a future city council votes by simple majority, they can extend the boundary into the surrounding greenbelt – and thus, she says, create a “sprawl” situation that could threaten Sonoma’s rural character.

“The Urban Growth Boundary has protected open space around the city of Sonoma and prevented sprawl into the greenbelt for 20 years,” said Shore, calling its renewal essential for “open space protection and visionary growth policy for the next generation of Sonomans.”

However some see the constraints of the UBG as limiting growth potential or even new ideas about the future direction of the city. While Fred Allebach, chairman of the city’s Community Services and Environment Commission, sees “no problem per se” with the current UGB, he argues that simply renewing it prevents public review and oversight.

“I’d like for the public to be able to explore UGB issues the way the HAP (Housing Action Plan) explored housing issues, with a sense of discovery, and to see where the merits lead,” he says in a statement submitted for Monday’s meeting.

The Monday, July 29 meeting will be the City Council’s first since June 24, a traditional civic hiatus in summer. But another meeting is scheduled a week later, on Aug. 5, when the City Council will resume its usual twice-monthly schedule.

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the City Council Chambers, 177 First St. W.; the agenda and other information is online at sonomacity.civicweb.net/Portal.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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