BY KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A key chapter in a long-running development debate is coming to a head in Santa Rosa as the politically influential Oakmont retirement community has stepped up its campaign to block an affordable housing project on its northern border.
But the east Santa Rosa community may find its options to oppose the project limited by a state law that creates incentives for developers to build affordable housing and makes it harder for local cities to stop such projects.
The 4,500-member strong Oakmont Community Association is appealing the city Planning Commission’s approval of the environmental report for the Elnoka Village project on Highway 12.
The four-volume study, which cost developer Oakmont Senior Living more than $300,000 to complete, attempts to outline all the potential impacts from the plan to construct a 209-unit complex on nine acres at the eastern entrance to Santa Rosa.
Oakmont residents call the project completely inappropriate for their neighborhood. They say the four-story building is too big for the site, will ruin views of Annadel State Park, will choke the two-lane highway with traffic and will leave its future residents far from services.
But mostly they object to the affordable housing component of the project, which will set aside 61 rental units for very low- to moderate-income residents of all ages.
Oakmont resident Wally Schilpp, an active opponent of the project, said Elnoka Village should be restricted to seniors because that’s what the zoning called for before it was changed nearly a decade ago with little public input.
“We have nothing against affordable housing. We want affordable housing for seniors,” says Schilpp, co-chairman of the Oakmont Property and Development Committee.
But David Grabill, a Santa Rosa affordable housing advocate who is counsel to the Housing Advocacy Group, said that kind of exclusionary attitude has led to Santa Rosa being the most economically segregated city in Sonoma County.
“That area of Santa Rosa badly needs some diversity, social and economic,” Grabill said.
That’s why in 2002 Grabill’s group sued to force the city to designate more properties throughout the city for affordable housing. To settle the suit, the city agreed to change the zoning on several larger parcels. One of those was the Elnoka property, then owned by a Japanese development firm whose plans had stalled. Planning documents were amended to change the parcel from one slated for a senior care center to medium density, multi-family use.
The change wasn’t well publicized at the time, and Oakmont residents were largely caught unaware when they learned of it years later.
“Everything was done legally and openly, but the outreach for stakeholders involved was probably less than the residents would have liked,” said Wayne Goldberg, former director of Community Development.
In 2005, Bill Gallaher, the developer of the controversial Varenna at Fountaingrove and Fountaingrove Lodge retirement communities, purchased the 68-acre Elnoka parcel. Various versions of the project have been winding their way through the city’s planning process ever since.
Oakmont residents didn’t understand the higher density use in store for the parcel until around 2007, when formal rezoning of the property became necessary.
“Oakmont folks went ballistic when they figured out the site next door to them might have some multi-family housing,” Grabill recalled.
Sharing property line
Schilpp said Oakmont residents know something will be built on the property someday. But residents bought homes with assurances that the adjacent property was to be a senior care facility. They now have a right to wonder whether their property values will suffer given the size of the structure and other impacts, he said.
John Felton, 86, says he shares a property line with the project. “I can spit in their backyard,” said the retired electrical engineer, who lives on Silver Creek Circle.
He said he worries not only about the four-story structure that could rise up to mar his hillside view but about what kind of neighbors low-income folks might make. Aware that it sounds wrong to say so, Felton said he worries about problems if his future neighbors “don’t have the sense of pride of ownership.”
But Bill Mabry, a partner in Oakmont Senior Living, said many in Oakmont misunderstand the affordable housing component of the project.
The affordable units aren’t subsidized by taxpayer money. They simply have lower rents for people who can demonstrate they are low or moderate income, definitions defined by percentages of the area median income. The units are integrated into the project, with low-income people living among those paying full market rates, he said.
Eligible for density bonus
In exchange for building the affordable units, the project would be granted a “density bonus” that allows it to build more units than it would otherwise. Instead of 162 units, the project would be granted 209 units, a 29 percent increase.
That’s just too many units for the site, Schilpp said. Portions of the building spill over into an adjacent parcel that was never designed for the higher density housing, something that will require a lot line adjustment to which Schilpp objects. “The building will not fit,” he said.
Opponents of projects often begin their attack at the environmental report stage, but in this case, the fight over the environmental impact for Elnoka may be Oakmont’s best shot.
The state law that created density bonuses as a way of encouraging developers to build affordable housing also streamlined the approvals process for such projects, leaving local jurisdictions limited flexibility to require project changes.
“Once you have certified that an EIR is complete, then when the project comes back through and it’s a density-bonus project like this is, it’s very difficult to say no,” said Chuck Regalia, Santa Rosa’s director of Community Development.
With the help of attorneys and land use consultants, Oakmont opponents are raising a range of formal objections to the project, but Mabry said he believes their real objection is simple:
“Everyone talks affordability, and everyone likes affordability, and it’s a really nice idea as long as you don’t build it next to my house and my subdivision,” he said.
The City Council was originally scheduled to consider the appeal Tuesday. That will now occur at a time yet to be determined.