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Our County by Lynda Hopkins

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Our County by Lynda Hopkins - February 2017

by Efren Carrillo

My first weeks in office have been quite the whirlwind! I am excited to announce that in our second board meeting of the year, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that will make ADUs -- accessory dwelling units, often called “granny units” -- easier and less expensive to build for the residents of unincorporated Sonoma County. This ordinance is one small step on the long journey towards affordable housing in our County. It will bring our County code into compliance with recently passed State legislation, and we believe that it will also open up low-impact affordable housing opportunities for residents.

What changes did the new ordinance make? Going forward, ADUs will be allowed with a ministerial permit. A ministerial permit means that the permit is not discretionary. In other words, the County cannot refuse to issue you the permit as long as you meet our criteria. The permit is “by right,” and may not be appealed. Ministerial permits result in a more affordable and expedited process. 

The next question: what are ADUs, and where can they be built? One special type of ADU, Junior Second Units, will be allowed anywhere residential housing exists. Specifically, you will be allowed to convert a spare bedroom in your home into a “Junior Second Unit” of up to 500 square feet. A Junior Second Unit includes an efficiency kitchen and a separate or shared bathroom. (Please note that ADUs of any form may not be used as vacation rentals.)

If you are interested in building a traditional, detached ADU, you may go through a streamlined, expedited permitting process if you meet the following criteria. 

If you have access to municipal water and sewer, as long as your lot is 5,000 square feet or larger, you may build or repurpose an existing building into an ADU of up to 1,000 square feet.

If you are on septic and you have a property of two acres or more, you may build an ADU of up to 1,000 square feet. If your property is between 1.5 acres and 2 acres, you may build an ADU of up to 640 square feet. (Please note that ADUs must still meet applicable fire and safety and septic requirements. On smaller lots, a potable water requirement also applies.)

I’m pretty darn excited about the new ADU ordinance, and I hope you are, too. But I feel I must devote the majority of this column to the double crest flood event that hit West County hard -- and brought the lower Russian River to 37.8 feet, the highest level in more than a decade.

When I took office on Tuesday, January 3, I thought I would spend my first weekend as a Supervisor reading and reviewing the 500-page agenda packet for our first Board Meeting of the year. Mother Nature, however, had other plans.

Instead of reading an agenda packet, I spent my first weekend “in office” outside of the office, reading the Russian River. I spent Saturday and Sunday working with a team of volunteers to evacuate and clear out a homeless encampment that was situated directly in the flood’s path. On Saturday, January 7, Chris Brokate, the volunteers of the Clean River Alliance, and a Supervised Adult Crew removed 10,060 pounds (that’s 5 tons!) of trash from the riverbank. On Sunday, I returned with a skeleton crew of volunteers to make sure that the rest of the homeless residents had evacuated and cleared out their camps. 

They hadn’t. It was pouring down rain, and the River was rising approximately one foot per hour. One by one, the trails we’d used to remove trash on Saturday became covered by the River. The campsite quickly became an island. We found ourselves wading knee-deep across a trench, through blackberry brambles and ivy, dragging bundled tarps and plastic bags. We made a bridge out of wooden pallets to get across. We carried out chairs, tents, bicycles, lanterns. Bags of clothes and bedding, food, books, stoves, pots and pans, laundry detergent, batteries. 

It’s not easy to get people to trust you enough to help them leave the only home they know in the mist of a rising flood. I am grateful to this day that people ultimately chose to trust us, and that all homeless residents were safely evacuated from the encampment before the River covered the island.

Floods bring people together, and there are many lessons to be learned from the recent flood. But one that feels particularly relevant in today’s political climate is that natural disasters -- and floods in particular -- equalize us. Along the Russian River, we are one watershed. The health of our environment and the health of our people are inextricably intertwined.