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Sonoma County Planning Discussions Crowd the Horizon

Aug 22, 2018
by Will Carruthers

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Nearly a year after the Sonoma County Complex Fires destroyed 5,300 homes and ten years after the last housing crash slowed Sonoma County’s economy to a crawl, discussions about the future of housing, transportation and the economy are proliferating.

In the coming months, city, county, regional and business-led planning processes will each form an image of what Sonoma County and the North Bay should look like in the future.

Although many of the problems up for debate preexisted the fires, discussions at public meetings and behind closed doors in the coming months may well determine what course the county and North Bay region take for years to come.

Where We Are Now

On the surface, Santa Rosa’s economic future looked rosy last September. With city lawmakers in the process of crafting friendlier commercial cannabis laws than surrounding cities, Joe Matthews, a syndicated columnist, noted that Santa Rosa appeared to be positioning itself to be “California’s weed crossroads.”

Ultimately, the city’s low taxes and ideal location in between the Bay Area and the Emerald Triangle led to a rush oncommercial spaces, spiking commercial real estate prices and sparking new jobs in the region.

Still, significant economic inequality lay just below the surface, according to a 2014 study of health, education and income disparities in the county.

While the median white worker in Sonoma County earned $36,647, the median Latino worker earned only $21,965, a wage disparity that is common across California, according to Portrait of Sonoma County, a report commissioned by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

Wide disparities in health, education and income exist within small distances of each other, according to the report. East Bennett Valley, the Census tract with the highest quality of living, is only five miles from Roseland Creek, the district with the lowest quality of living.

In the past year, the county’s homeless population increased by nearly six percent, up to 2,996, according to the County’s 2018 Homeless Census. The homeless population reached a ten-year high in 2011, at 4,539.

Median household incomes are expected to rise from $66,783 in 2017 to $75,491 in 2022, a 13 percent increase, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s 2018 report.

However, the middle class will continue to shrink: “Looking into 2022, the largest income bracket expected to grow is $100,000-$150,000 by 1.8 percent, while the income bracket projected to shrink most is $50,000-$75,000 by 2.3 percent,” the report notes.

Housing, Jobs and Transportation

As with much of the Bay Area, housing remains one of the most-discussed topics in Sonoma County. As a result, the Board of Supervisors has set a goal of building 30,000 new homes in the county before 2023, a rate far above the county’s 2013-2017 average production of 716 new units per year.

While most residents may agree that Sonoma County needs more housing, the question of where to put the homes and what income brackets new housing should serve are the core subjects in the ongoing debate.

In theory, planning should be easy - consult some studies, listen to the people and draw up a plan that sort of pleases everyone. In practice, as seen by the recent failure of the Affordable Housing Bond for Sonoma County, it can be difficult to find a common vision.

While the County has not scheduled meetings or presentations to update the Sonoma County General Plan, a blueprint for land use on unincorporated county land, the plan is required to be updated periodically.

Sonoma County’s Office of Recovery and Resilience is holding meetings and gathering public input for use in its Recovery and Resilience Report.

The resulting report is intended to act as “a blueprint that will address the immediate and long-term recovery efforts needed to ensure the future safety, livelihoods and economic prosperity of all residents of Sonoma County,” according to the office’s website. 

Several cities, including Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, are holding some of their own planning meetings in the coming months. Some of those meetings and websites where you can find more information are listed below this article.

Photo: PerryPlanet/Wikimedia

Because of the interrelated nature of jobs, housing, transportation and environmental concerns, some groups are studying the North Bay’s needs regionally and as part of the nine-county Bay Area.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Plan Bay Area are releasing the results of their Horizon initiative,a report considering three possible futures for the nine-county Bay Area by the year 2050. 

Private Planning Endeavors

Representatives of the business community have started their own planning efforts for the future of the North Bay.

Darius Anderson, CEO of Kenwood Investments, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments and CEO of Platinum Advisors, a Sacramento lobbying firm, announced the formation of the Rebuild Northbay Foundation on Oct. 11, 2017.

Rebuild, now led by executive director Jennifer Gray Thompson, is figuring out what it would take to for the five-county North Bay to “leap ahead into a new regional reality.”

“We represent many people who are in the private sector and what they want to do is be supportive. The public sector cannot get through this on their own because they are already providing the services they were pre-fire while facing tax short falls,” Thompson said in a July interview with the Gazette. “This is our way of stepping up and being supportive.”

Rebuild is "focused on understanding what went right and what went wrong, while developing a comprehensive plan for recovery and rebuilding," in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, Marin and Lake counties, according toRebuild's website. 

In addition to considering the region’s current housing needs, Rebuild hopes to anticipate what workers two generations in the future will find appealing by drawing inspiration from urban designs in Europe and new housing developers like StarCity, a San Francisco-based company that builds what the New York Times referred to as “dorm living for professionals.”

Rebuild’s Board of Directors and Advisory Board, whose members include a range of business, non-profit and community leaders, will meet for the first time in September at a three-hour retreat, according to Thompson.

The Bay Area Council, a business-funded think tank, is currently working on a Post Disaster Assessment of the North Bay, which Rebuild will post to its website when the report is complete.

Finally, the California Economic Summit will convene in Santa Rosa in November. While the conference isn’t entirely focused on the county, District 4 Supervisor James Gore, Assistant Director of the Sonoma County Department of Human Services Oscar Chavez and Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey are scheduled to speak.

Supervisor Gore serves as a co-chair of the Summit’s organizing committee.

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