Editorial: Ground shifts on Planning Commission

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When it comes to the immediate future of Sonoma land use, the ground continues to shift.

That at least was an initial reaction by some to last Monday’s re-seating of five members of the Sonoma Planning Commission – the civic body charged with implementing the General Plan and recommending land-use proposals – when two applicants known for their staunch opposition to recent local development applications were appointed to the city’s most influential commission.

Under guidelines initiated in 2017, planning commissioners are appointed individually by each of the five members of the Sonoma City Council, with an additional two commissioners voted upon by the council at large. With each election cycle, elected council members name their respective planning commissioners and the council as a whole votes upon the at-large members.

At the Jan. 14 council meeting, the second full meeting for newly elected Councilmember Logan Harvey, three significant changes occurred: Sheila O’Neill and Larry Barnett were appointed to the Planning Commission, and longtime planning commissioner James Cribb was not.

Cribb, a former chair of the commission, had been something of a constructionist to the town development code – meaning, if he felt a proposal met city land-use guidelines and state CEQA requirements, he was often a “yes” on the project. Because of that, Cribb is seen by some as development-friendly; others simply see him as strictly adhering to the standards the city has put in place. Cribb has supported such contested applications as the Hotel Project Sonoma and the Fourth Street East project on Schocken Hill, two separate projects put forth by Sonoma residents Darius Anderson and Bill Jasper, respectively, both investors in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribune. (Anderson is the founder of Kenwood Investments, the hotel project’s official applicant.)

Meanwhile, O’Neill and Barnett have publicly positioned themselves as staunch opponents to certain projects. O’Neill in 2017 led the opposition of the so-called First Street East Project, a 32-home mixed-use development in a downtown residential neighborhood that was eventually withdrawn following fierce neighborhood opposition. O’Neill was also a spokesperson for the opposition to the Fourth Street East Project, a proposal to build three homes at the base of Schocken Hill – a plan the City Council ruled failed to comply with planning guidelines. Jasper, in turn, filed suit against the city, his challenge of the project’s denial based on mandates in the state Housing Accountability Act.

Barnett, meanwhile, has been a skeptic of the Hotel Project Sonoma, even successfully appealing its EIR on the basis that its traffic study was flawed.

That being said, given resident Barnett’s role as an opponent of the proposed 62-room hotel and restaurant on West Napa Street, a recusal from now-Planning Commissioner Barnett in upcoming commission deliberations is probably in the cards.

Of course, it would be premature to gauge the makeup of the commission before any of the new members have attended a single meeting, let alone cast a single vote, from behind the dais.

Still, it’s looking like the typical town-hall fireworks that most city’s reserve for their city councils, may be further shifting to the Sonoma Planning Commission.

Or, as one former Planning Commission put it in an email to the Index-Tribune:

“How many recusals will (Larry Barnett) need with all of his taped opposition to everything?”

Also new to the Planning Commission is former-city-councilmember Steve Barbose, an appointee of Harvey. Re-appointed commissioners Bob Felder and James Bohar will join still-seated members Ron Wellander and Kelso Barnett to round out the seven-member body. Former Planning Commissioner Robert McDonald was appointed by the council as an alternate.

The Planning Commission’s ever revolving door continues to turn. Meanwhile, not only will this year see several prominent development proposals come to the commission for review, but the long-awaited update to the city’s General Plan is finally expected to begin.

That said, this is no neophyte commission – it’s got two former mayors, plus two members appointed last year who had served before.

Still, continuity in recent times has been sorely lacking. A string of non-reappointments, term-outs, a resignation and re-appointments of former commissioners has resulted in Bohar being the longest, continually serving current commissioner.

His two-year anniversary on the commission takes place this March.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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