Healdsburg panel recommends dropping housing cap

The City Council will weigh the recommendation at a meeting Monday and decide whether to put it to voters.|
The Sonata subdivision in Healdsburg in 2015. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
April 17, 2016

Healdsburg is likely to create more affordable housing if it repeals a voter-approved growth management ordinance that restricts the number of new homes to an average of 30 per year, according to a city committee that has been studying the issue.

Tonight, the City Council will weigh whether to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to remove the 16-year-old growth cap that many see as an impediment to creating apartments and less-expensive housing, but others see as necessary to prevent runaway growth.

"We’re not proposing rampant growth," Mayor Tom Chambers said of his bold proposal - which was supported by the housing committee - to do away with the growth cap.

"The whole driver to this is not more development, but a way to address what every city in Sonoma County and probably California is wrestling with - what do we do to provide some affordable housing?" he said.

The recommendation also calls for doubling the amount of low- to moderate-income units developers would be required to include as part of any market-rate housing project - from the current 15 percent of units to 30 percent.

But Jim Winston, the author of the growth restriction ordinance that voters approved in 2000, said city officials can’t be trusted to keep a rein on development without a cap on residential construction.

He said it will be "political suicide" for council members who want to remove the cap "because the voters will not embrace that. They don’t want unbridled, uncontrolled growth."

Healdsburg voters are highly sensitive to development because they fear "losing small-town character and quality of life," he said.

Winston said the housing committee’s recommendation came a half-hour after a representative for NuForest Products - a prominent downtown wood mill - told committee members the property has been sold to a developer who wants to build a hotel and housing on the site, but cannot do it with the growth ordinance in place.

But Chambers said came up with the idea of tossing out the growth cap before the NuForest representative spoke.

Winston and Councilwoman Brigitte Mansell, a member of the housing committee, said the developer wants to build 120 housing units on the mill property.

Mansell voted against abolishing the growth management ordinance along with Bruce Abramson, but they were on the losing end of the housing committee’s 7-2 recommendation.

Besides Chambers, those in favor of removing the growth cap included committee members Jeff Civian, Joe Lickey, John Worden, Nancy Madarus, Richard Burg and Erica Whisney.

The growth ordinance was approved 16 years ago in response to larger housing projects such as Parkland Farms that were built on the city’s periphery.

The intent was to create slow and orderly growth, but critics said it ended up favoring the creation of pricey single-family homes because it’s harder to build multi-family dwellings without butting up against the growth ceiling.

"We haven’t had apartments built in decades," Chambers said. "It’s hard to get anybody to build an apartment building because it doesn’t pencil out."

The town of almost 12,000 people has some of the highest real estate prices in Sonoma County.

A city-commissioned poll in January found that more than seven in 10 residents are worried about the lack of housing for working families. Housing costs and lack of housing options were ranked as the most pressing issues in Healdsburg.

Vacancy rates in the rental market are "extremely low or non-existent," according to a 2014 study. And only about one-third of the people who work in Healdsburg live there, a figure considered less than desirable for a cohesive community.

Chambers said a family of four with an income of $125,000 - 160 percent of the area’s median - can’t buy a house in Healdsburg.

The median selling price of a home in Healdsburg and its immediate environs was $805,000 in 2015, according to The Press Democrat’s housing report.

The housing committee late last year recommended the growth cap be loosened to allow an average of 45 new units per year over an eight-year cycle, perhaps with a mixture of market-rate and deed-restricted homes for certain income levels - particularly the "missing middle," those who make too much to qualify for government-assisted housing but can’t afford a typical home.

Winston and his committee, Healdsburg Citizens for Responsible Growth, objected because of the possibility that all the allocations could be used up in a single year, with hundreds of homes constructed at once.

Chambers said that even without a growth cap, the city could manage what gets built through a housing action plan that would lay out guidelines for a mix of affordable and market-rate units.

"It won’t just be the Wild West," he said.

But Mansell said a housing action plan wouldn’t have any teeth.

"Unless we have some cap, I don’t think it serves our community in the long run," she said.

The City Council will discuss the committee’s recommendation after 6 at tonight’s meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@press?democrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas