Parcel loading: Fringe development in Sonoma County
Since adoption of the 1978 General Plan (GP), Sonoma County has planned for Community Centered growth. Development has been directed to communities that have sewer and water. The cities take most of the County growth. During the 1980’s this was planned among Supervisors, City Councils and citizens. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) allowed County housing shares to be directed to cities in lieu of subdividing farmland.
The idea is to save large lots for agriculture and to relieve the costly stress of sprawl growth. Providing infrastructure throughout the county is very costly. When the apple industry folded, apple farmers expected to cut their land into five-acre parcels as a retirement plan. The County preserved this agricultural land through large lot zoning. This is also true of forested land. This strategy worked to preserve the land and critical uses. An important tool was the creation of Burbank Housing to build affordable housing for the lower end of the economic spectrum. Unfortunately, the Supervisors have under- utilized and under-funded Burbank Housing.
Fringe development has taken on new meaning in Sonoma County. Leapfrog development, and smaller parcels are more common. Fringe development looks like huge corporate owned wine processing facilities, with restaurants and curlicue stores added. Now there are various types of housing allowed by the County Supervisors on each parcel. This not only impacts services, water supply, habitat, and creates greater traffic - it is costly to the government. We now have multi-housing clusters in agricultural zoning due to parcel loading.
There is gentrification in Sonoma County just like in well-studied West Marin. Fewer locals can afford new rural housing. Real estate is not geared to the service or agriculture worker but toward people leaving the City, and the well healed. The Board believes they can “build their way out of this housing crisis”. This cannot happen on twenty bucks an hour wage. Universities and high schools are forced to consider providing housing for teachers. Fringe housing leads to more gentrification and solves nothing.
Sprawl costs are well documented. Sonoma County maintains double the miles of public roads as any comparable sized County in California. The Board seems not to have recognized water scarce areas, fire prone areas nor disbursed service costs in the densification of properties. When services are disbursed, law enforcement and firefighting cost go up. Every year the Board fights the financial cost of increased Sheriff’s patrol. The stress on fire services are well documented. Given the yearly wildfires, it hardly makes sense to disperse housing in forested areas.
The Board did not create exceptions in forested areas for parcel loading. They resist California Department of Forestry efforts to disallow commercial development on roads less than twenty feet wide. This decision is shortsighted and will have consequences.
A topic for another day is the vacation rental Ordinance. The Board now realizes that there is a downside to vacation rentals. Returning vacation rentals to permanent housing would solve most of the housing crunch we are now experiencing. We need further curtailment of vacation rentals.
Today, sewer areas cannot take more growth due to capacity issues. We need sewer upgrades if we are to increase density. The county must caucus with Santa Rosa and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to ensure that affordable housing growth can be transferred to Cities where the jurisdictions have adequate infrastructure. The County can spend its Housing money in incorporated areas. Consideration should be given to curtailing the corporate farm factories now labeled wineries and to support Santa Rosa’s efforts to build up, build more densely. It is as valid today as twenty years ago that curtailing rural development is more efficient in saving farmland, is more cost efficient and is part of a climate smart solution. Providing new housing in the cities is the direction forward.