WatchSonoma Watch

Sky Farm decision frames debate over development

Thomas Jones, principal of Brelje & Race engineering consultants, and Becky Duckles, a consulting arborist, on the proposed Sky Farm 3 site. BETH SCHLANKER/PD


Trudging through the dense underbrush of the Fountaingrove hillside where his client hopes to create 31 homesites, Tom Jones stood between two oak trees.

One, a massive coast live oak with several thick trunks and a domelike canopy, will be spared under the property’s current development plan that creates a protective buffer zone around the nearly 100-year-old specimen.

The other, a live oak just up a few yards away, won’t be so lucky.

Although just as healthy and nearly as old as its neighbor, the taller live oak is to be chopped down to make way for one of the three roads the developer wants to carve into the rocky hillside overlooking the fourth tee of the Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club.

But it was Jones’ plan that ran into a buzz saw last week when a coalition of neighbors seeking to block the development found a sympathetic ear with a slim majority of the Santa Rosa City Council.

The possibility that up to two-thirds of the trees could be destroyed by the roads and homes planned for the 10-acre site was too much for four council members, who upheld the appeal on a 4-3 vote and kicked Sky Farm 3 back to the Planning Commission that had approved it a month earlier.

Council Members Marsha Vas Dupre, Gary Wysocky and Veronica Jacobi and Mayor Susan Gorin cited numerous reasons for their decision, including concerns about fire danger, the lack of public input and the effect on wildlife. But it was the potential loss of so many trees — 212 of the site’s 320 oak, madrone and bay trees — that disturbed the council most.

“I think that the time has come for us to say we have got to stand for the environment,” Vas Dupre said. “Because if we don’t, it’s very hard for the trees to speak for themselves.”

The decision to rebuff a project that planners said followed all the rules reflects the current council majority’s commitment to minimizing impacts from development, its skepticism about the wisdom of hillside development and its sympathy for quality of life issues raised by neighbors.

Gorin, herself a Fountaingrove resident, said she experienced firsthand the “devastation” homebuilders brought to the hillsides around her home and has some regrets about how projects, such as the Varenna senior community, turned out.

“We’ve made some mistakes in Fountaingrove, no doubt about it,” she said. “It’s not a reason to give up now.”

Builders, however, see the decision as yet another example of a council that sides with a slow-growth, pro-environment agenda at the expense of jobs and tax dollars.

“I really find those people to be out of touch,” said framing contractor Barry Hirsch, who is building a 6,000-square-foot custom home near the proposed project site.

Instead of 25 men working for him, Hirsch said he now has five. He doesn’t blame the council for the economic forces behind the housing bust, but he said a council holding up a project that could provide much needed construction jobs shows its priorities are misplaced.

“It just seems unfair to me that a developer who invests his money and follows the rules can be held up for capricious reasons,” Hirsch said. “I find that troubling.”

The lengthy staff report on the proposed development concluded that it was consistent with all applicable city codes, including the General Plan, zoning for the area and hillside and tree ordinances.

Voting for the project were Council members Jane Bender, Ernesto Olivares and John Sawyer.

The developer and his consultant, Jones’ civil engineering firm Brelje & Race, have a long history of building in the area. They developed the previous Sky Farm 1 and 2 subdivisions that resulted in the construction of 157 hillside homes.

The site overlooks the golf course and is surrounded by large homes on all sides, but neighbors pressed forward with their opposition.

They hired a land-use consultant and expressed concern they are losing control of their exclusive community.

City planners said developments like the Varenna senior community in Fountaingrove are being cited by opponents of new projects as evidence that the planning process cannot be trusted.

“I’m really afraid that when it’s all said and done, when we look at the end result of this project, we’re going to be scratching our heads and saying how did this happen again?” said Steve Goody, chief executive officer of Santa Rosa–based tech startup Pocket Radar Inc. and a neighbor of the Sky Farm 3 site.

Another neighbor, Edward Bellone, outlined for the council what he felt was a long-term pattern of increasing the density of the Fountaingrove neighborhood. He cited zoning changes to the golf course, Varenna site, Fountaingrove Village commercial site and others as evidence that the area has become overbuilt.

“The changes to the master plan have, without question, seriously affected the quality of life in the ranch,” Bellone said, referring to changes to the original “Fountaingrove Ranch” plan approved in 1981.

Some neighbors said Sky Farm 3 is another example of a developer who has figured out how to manipulate the zoning codes to maximize profits at the expense of neighbors and the environment.

“It’s not a not-in-my-backyard sort of thing,” said Jeanette Gulbronsen, who lives in a large home immediately to the north of the project area and who filed the appeal. “These developers take advantage of the variances and they’re not concerned about the consequences.”

The Sky Farm 3 developer has obtained two exceptions from rules regarding the design of its roads, Gulbronsen said. Without those exceptions, they wouldn’t be able to build as many homes, she said. Routine granting of such requests by developers helped lead to the “atrocity” of Varenna, she said.

Jones, whose firm designed much of Fountaingrove including the Varenna project, said he’s become used to such criticism.

“I’ve been tarred with that brush many times,” Jones said.

He said he finds it interesting how quickly opponents of such projects forget that a similar number of trees were removed to build their homes, as well.

“Everyone thinks that not a single tree was cut down to make their development, and that’s just not the case,” he said.

The 31 homes proposed for Sky Farm 3 is actually a lower number than the 46 homes originally proposed for the site. A great deal of design work went into creating a plan that minimized the impact on trees, Jones said.

Instead of a traditional cul de sac, the northern parcel was designed with a road that preserves and encircles a grove of oaks, Jones said.

Arborist Becky Duckles surveyed every tree on the property and said she helped the developer design the project to avoid removal of significant trees whenever possible.

“I feel very confident that we’ve really worked hard to keep the best groves and specimens,” Duckles said.

Jones said he respects the council’s decision and thinks he’ll he able to rework the plan to reduce the number of trees removed.

While it’s clear 21 percent of the trees would be removed during construction of the roads, it is harder to be certain exactly how many trees would be removed during home construction because the lots are going to be sold to custom homebuilders, he said.

For this reason, the tree survey assumed essentially every tree anywhere near the center of a homesite would fall during construction, he said. By shrinking the setbacks within each lot, Jones believes the percentage of trees lost could be reduced from 66 down to around 50 percent.

Whether that appeases the neighbors or the council remains to be seen.

Hirsch doubts the neighbors will ever be satisfied. He summed up their opposition to the project as, “I’m here now, and I don’t want any more people here.”

The council members hinted at the double standard potentially at work in the opposition by the neighbors, who generally live in larger homes on larger lots than those slated for Sky Farm 3.

Vas Dupre said the council has to be “careful about the NIMBY approach” when considering such appeals, using the common acronym for “not in my back yard.”

Bender, who supported the project, made a more oblique reference to the issue when she tried to reassure the residents that the project eventually would turn out well.

“I’m sure the homes will be every bit as lovely as your homes are, and they are gorgeous up there,” Bender said.

14 Responses to “Sky Farm decision frames debate over development”

  1. john bly says:

    NIMBY response number 1,000 from this council majority as they protect the trees and we all keep laying off people. We all like trees. Most of us understand a job is important too. It is ok though-just raise taxes.

  2. bear says:

    Everyone, including the City Council and the PD, should study history. This entire area will burn someday. And is right on top of a major earthquake fault.

    But plans approved at some past time by pro-development Councils should be upheld?

    You do understand that staff planners, who have some civil service and union protection, write staff reports that are edited by management who serve at the pleasure of the City Council? It is all decided at Council level. Before the public sees a thing.

    Greetings to Wayne Goldberg.

  3. “Parks Department chopped down 56 trees, moved 11 to make way for Fashion Week at Lincoln Center” http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2010/09/10/2010-09-10_parks_dept_chopped_56_moved_11_to_make_way_for_fashion_show_tents_models_trees_c.html This article reminded me of you guys. Xoxo, have a great weekend!

  4. Lyn Cramer says:

    This discussion has been a pleasure to read. But I’m a little perplexed by Mr. Baley’s comment that the council’s rejection of the application upheld the General Plan and zoning code.

    The article seem to say the opposite, that the applicant’s plan conformed to all applicable rules. One purpose of land use planning is to take politics out of the decision, level the playing field for all applicants, and clearly delineate zoning requirements.

    It sure looks like the council decided this application based on their own individual preferences. Whether I agree personally with the decision is irrelevant. Builders deserve to know what the rules are in advance, be expected to abide by them, and not have to endure expensive application processes in which the outcome depends on the personal views of the council.

    That’s what appears to have happened here.

  5. Scott Baley says:

    @ City Worker – There are policies that protect these trees and regulate Hill Side development. That is why the developer had to ask for variances and permits to get around the policies. The council denying these special variances and permits is upholding the policies.

    Good for the council to actually hold a developer to the General Plan and Zoning Code for once!

  6. sick and tired says:

    Wow. Contractor Barry Hirsch complains others are out of touch and yet he’s building a 6000 sq.ft. home. Who’s out of touch? Just because a “plan” was developed in the midst of an insane building era doesn’t mean it’s a GOOD plan. Why isn’t it ok to take a second look at the overdevelopment of areas, whether it be mansions in Fountaingrove or hundreds of small lots in the Southwest? The PD continues to be slanted in its reporting. It talks about developers and the “slim majority”
    of the current council. Well, the former majority was also slim at times, but it wasn’t described as such. Where’s the creation of green jobs? Where’s the innovation? Why do we have to annihilate resources on the premise of creating construction jobs? We USED to do it, so it’s ok? Anyone heard of two wrongs don’t make a right? It’s about time the City looked at development plans. New construction is NOT going to be the savior this recession.

  7. zuma says:

    Maybe we should build a Lowe’s and Walmart Super Store instead of the houses?
    The city needs all the revenue from sales taxes it is giving to Rodent Park and Windsor and Cotati and their garden shops will add lots of trees in inventory!

    That should shut up the NIMBYS and make the tax and spend city council happy!

  8. City Worker says:

    If you don’t want development on the hillside, change the Zoning and General Plan. Likewise, if you want to protect certain trees, put it in a policy. It is not fair to have this blocked by council if it meets all of the existing requirements. Kind of ironic that a past council went the other way and contributed millions towards the completion of Fountaingrove Pky on the grounds that it would become a major east-west connector, and then the existing residents complained and got the speed limit reduced along with the number of lanes. It is no faster to take Fountaingrove (and it uses more gas because of the hills), so it was a waste of City resources. Net effect, the City helped developers unfairly in the past, and now they are hindering developers unfairly… I’m all for keeping trees, but we need to do it by policy, not because some neighbor complains that the developer is doing exactly what they did when they built their house…

  9. Scott Baley says:

    The Urban Growth Boundary is not supposed to mean we tear up all the trees inside it and just build, build, build. I would hope the city council is prudent in preserving the character of Santa Rosa. Our city council should protect significant groves of Oak Trees, ensure too much density is not built on the outer rim of the city, and take traffic considerations into account before a project moves forward. It is clear the developer could not care one bit about the “capricious” concerns of Santa Rosa residents. That means the city must do the job.

  10. Kay Tokerud says:

    Santa Rosa has an urban growth boundary. Fountaingrove is within it. There’s supposed to be development in this area, sometimes very high density development. Our General Plan demands it. Now, all of a sudden certain trees, that would speak up if they could, are being unfairly targetted for removal. Give me a break. People living next to vacant land always want to preserve the trees to block the adjacent property owner’s right to develop their property. No one likes having neighbors more than living next to open land. I would discount the concerns of people living adjacent to the undeveloped property in this case.

  11. zuma says:


  12. Scott P says:

    “It’s hard for the trees to talk to themselves!” says Vas Dupre. What a wack job.

    The developer has paid thousands to comply with city demands. Now residents who cut down trees for their own homes have convinced 4 council members that the trees can’t speak for themselves?

    I can talk to the trees, they say…let Hirsch build the houses. 20 people have lost jobs because wackos like Vas Dupre are on the city council.

  13. Scott Baley says:

    It is good to see that the Oak trees will be better preserved. Development that damages or eliminates important natural features, like our hillside Oak Groves, should not be permitted. I support some development, but there are better places to do it that don’t damage our remaining Oak Groves. Too many have been destroyed.

  14. I’d like to propose a plan that all Fountaingrove residents, including Edward Bellone and Jeanette Gulbronsen, vacate the Fountaingrove area. When the area has been vacated of all residents we will remove all housing structures in an environmentally-friendy manner and let the Fountaingrove area recover from decades of overusage.

    I will be launching a website and political action committee within 45 days to gain support.