By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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.