By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Zoning changes designed to make it easier for businesses to locate in Santa Rosa were lauded by the City Council majority Tuesday as wise economic development policy but lambasted by others as handouts to developers and private property owners.
The council unanimously approved giving wineries and breweries more flexibility to operate tasting rooms and production facilities in the city, in some cases without any land-use permits.
But proposals to rezone the 12.5-acre Yolanda Avenue property once proposed for a Lowe’s Home Improvement store and another aimed at allowing large grocery stores in the city’s southeast without use permits got mired in the council’s deep political divide.
The four-member majority supported the changes as ways to remove what it deemed unnecessary obstacles to businesses and boost jobs and sales taxes.
“We are developing a site that will attract a user that will be a money generator for the city,” Councilman Jake Ours said of the Yolanda Avenue property.
But Councilman Gary Wysocky said didn’t think the city should have spent $70,000, most of it for an environmental review, to make development easier on a property when the city is kicking the nonprofit food bank FISH out of its long-time home for lack of funds.
“Here we are just writing a check to a private property owner,” Wysocky said.
A key obstacle in developing the site has been a 2.7-acre parcel zoned for medium density housing, which to change would require an amendment to the city general plan. To remove the impediment, the city proposed finding other sites in the city that could accommodate those 35 additional housing units.
The council agreed to increase the housing density on a 18.2-acre site on Montecito Avenue in Rincon Valley by 35 units, and on a 4.6-acre undeveloped site at 1865 Meda Avenue near the fairgrounds by 13 units.
But it rejected adding 48 additional units to a 7.7-acre site on Petaluma Hill Road after neighbors complained about the traffic, noise and crime they worried would result from a 100-unit complex beside their single-family homes.
Housing advocate David Grabill said he supported additional sites for affordable housing in the city, but also said the way the city was doing it essentially would eliminate all significant review for a future big-box project.
“This is clearly a back-door way of getting a big box into that Yolanda Avenue site,” Grabill said. “The city needs money, yeah. But you don’t need to put Friedman’s and Mead Clark and other good solid longterm local business out of business in the process.”
Zoning changes aimed at making it easier to open a grocery store in the southeast, an area of the city that has been labeled a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also ran into opposition from the council minority.
Councilwoman Susan Gorin said she was concerned that in the council’s “zeal to re-tenant a vacant space” the city would harm its chances of getting a large grocery store where the general plan has long envisioned one on Petaluma Hill Road.
She also said she had concerns about the traffic impacts of some future project and the loss of public input that would occur because the new store wouldn’t need a use permit.
“The public would have absolutely no information about the tenant moving in there until the ribbon cutting or design review,” Gorin said.
Wysocky questioned the federal definition of a food desert, noting there is a Trader Joe’s and Costco and Target with groceries in the area. He also said the designation was based on arbitrary boundaries and 12-year-old census data.
He called it “mind boggling” that someone living right across the street from Lola’s Market on Petaluma Hill Road could be considered by the federal government as living in a “food desert.”
He, too, made the issue one of community input.
“Do we want to have neighborhood input into what goes into that neighborhood or do we not? Do we want to be like Houston, Texas, or do we want to be like Santa Rosa, California?” he said.
But Ours said the point was to help people who didn’t have sufficient access to groceries. “We have a problem. We have a place where people can’t buy groceries, and we’re looking for solutions to that problem,” Ours said. “What we’re trying to do is improve the living conditions of people, and anybody who’s against that, I don’t understand.”
Earlier, several speakers praised the zoning changes making it easier for tasting rooms, wineries and breweries to open in the city, especially in the downtown, commercial and industrial areas.
Keven Brown, owner of Corrick’s stationery store on Fourth Street, wants to add a tasting room for Santa Rosa’s Ancient Oak Cellars. Previously, he would have needed a special use permit, a process that costs thousands of dollars and can take weeks. Now all he’ll need is a building permit. “We’re very excited to be the first to take advantage of this, but certainly not the last,” Brown said.
Ours said Corrick’s was “on the ropes,” but that the new rules will help the long-time business to survive.
Gorin noted that in the past the primary way the city pushed for a livelier downtown was by encouraging higher density housing, which has largely failed to materialize. But she said enticing tourists and others downtown with more alcohol-related amenities could accomplish some of those same goals.
Santa Rosa is sometimes slow to change with the times, said Vice Mayor John Sawyer, noting it wasn’t long ago that the city worried about whether restaurants should be allowed to serve wine to diners at outside tables.
“It takes Santa Rosa a long time sometimes to come of age,” Sawyer said. “In this case, perhaps decades.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin. email@example.com.