By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
President Barack Obama laid out plenty of ideas for creating jobs Thursday night, but here’s one you didn’t hear him pitch — tweaking zoning rules to boost economic development.
While it may not be on the president’s radar, that’s precisely the approach the Santa Rosa City Council is taking to generate jobs locally. And much like Obama’s plan, it is not without its skeptics.
Last week, sandwiched between various higher-profile topics, the council signed off on a series of rezoning efforts aimed at economic development and job growth.
Councilmember Scott Bartley said the effort should improve Santa Rosa’s image as a place where excessive and often conflicting regulations make it difficult to do business.
“We run individual applicants through the mill only to spit them out well chewed up at the end without their project and that says don’t come to Santa Rosa,” Bartley said. “We’re going to clean this up.”
But some have questioned whether the cash-strapped city should be shouldering costs traditionally borne by developers, and whether the effort will pave the way for controversial projects such as the Lowe’s Home Improvement store rejected in 2009.
While he supported many of the efforts, Councilman Gary Wysocky said he was less comfortable with rezoning specific properties at the request of developers or their agents.
“It just seems to me like it’s hand-out city,” Wysocky said.
The effort approved by the council last week is a continuation of a process begun under the previous council to streamline some permitting processes for businesses by allowing more types of uses, eliminating the need to apply for special permits for exceptional uses.
Now the council is going further, and agreeing to proactively rezone some properties that owners and real estate brokers have said are ripe for development if only the city would remove certain restrictions.
“It’s a vital and necessary investment in our city and its success,” Councilman John Sawyer said.
The full council agreed on several items they dubbed “low hanging fruit” early last month, but held off on more expensive and controversial proposals. They signed off on the rezoning of two business parks to increase the kinds of uses allowed there and speed up the process of moving in new businesses.
They also agreed to produce some promotional material about development opportunities in industrial areas that can access the newly resumed rail freight service, as well as opportunities at the current Kmart site on Cleveland Avenue.
But the council balked at spending up to $100,000 in environmental studies for the 12-acre site once eyed by Lowe’s.
Last week, however, staff returned and said it had found the $305,000 necessary to complete the work not only on the Lowe’s site but several others. These include the Prickett’s nursery at Highway 12 and Calistoga Road, the Montecito Shopping Center in Rincon Valley and Third Street between E Street and Brookwood Avenue.
Other measures included:
– Tinkering with the zoning requirements for supermarkets.
– Changing zoning restrictions for wineries and wine-tasting facilities.
– Increasing the areas where medical services are allowed by right.
– Making permanent the temporary measures taken by the prior council.
“This list will create jobs. It will improve the economy of Santa Rosa,” Bartley said.
Some residents, however, expressed concern that they weren’t involved in the process of deciding what properties to streamline for development.
“I think a lot of the neighbors feel left out,” Councilwoman Marsha Vas Dupre said.
Others worried that streamlining the processes would limit public involvement in the decisions, but Bartley said that was far from true.
“Nothing in this list will circumvent public involvement. It will shorten, ultimately, the time that an applicant has to spend to get a project approved,” Bartley said.
Whether that actually will create jobs is difficult to say. Chuck Regalia, city community development director, noted that the initial round of permit streamlining has been cited as a positive factor by the developers of the new Kia dealership on Santa Rosa Avenue, which will create about 20 jobs.
While the pace of home construction remains slow, Regalia said builders have pulled 50 to 60 permits under a new process that lets them delay paying sizable fees. The rule of thumb is every new home built creates one to two jobs, he said.
While it’s impossible to say if those builders would have moved forward anyway, Regalia said they prefer the new process because it saves them money.
Former Councilwoman Jane Bender said Santa Rosa’s quality of life used to be enough to draw businesses here. Today, however, there is “incredible competition” among cities for new businesses, including many offering tax breaks and other subsidies, and Santa Rosa needs to compete.
“We’ve got to spend some money in order to get money,” she said.