Archive for the ‘general plans’ Category

Housing costs can be directly related to the very basic economic theory of supply and demand. As demand increases and supply remains the same, the costs necessarily go up. This is very much evident in Sebastopol today. Sebastopol is seen as a desirable community to live in. It’s small, has good schools, low crime and is located in a beautiful environment with close access to nature. The median home price in Sebastopol is $675,000. A household needs to make well over $100,000 to afford the median priced house in Sebastopol. The median family income in Sebastopol is $50,900. There is a disconnect.

The number of housing units built in Sebastopol in recent years has been quite small. From 2010 to 2013 there have been 55 residential units constructed.  Thirty-four of those units were part of a single-family self-help affordable housing development. These numbers have done little to make housing more affordable in Sebastopol. While I’m all for advocating more multi-family housing near downtown I believe there is another option for improving housing affordability.

Secondary dwelling units (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units, granny units, as well as numerous other names) are allowed in Sebastopol. These have the ability to create much needed affordable housing. Currently, second dwelling units are allowed on all parcels zoned for single-family, duplex or multi-family uses. The city has reasonable development standards when it comes to second units. Single-story detached units may reduce rear and sideyard setback requirements by half (2-story or attached must comply with the setbacks established for the district they are located in). The height for a single-story unit can be up to 17′ and a two-story unit up to 25′. Second dwelling units do not need to be considered part of the maximum lot coverage allowed. Secondary dwelling units of 2 bedrooms or less only require 1 off-street parking space which may be parked in tandem with other off-street parking required for the property. Secondary dwelling units are allowed by right, except that 2-story units must be reviewed by the Design Review Board. For those of you not familiar with secondary dwelling units, this website has a lot of information and examples.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

This house has a second unit on the lower level.

In Sebastopol, the maximum allowable size for a second unit is limited to 840 sf. While it may be possible to get a 2-bedroom unit in 840 sf, it would be rather tight. I imagine most secondary dwelling units that are built to 840 sf are probably 1 bedroom units. The property next door to mine added a second unit about 10 years ago. It is close to 840 sf and 2 stories tall. It has 1 bedroom, and a loft area that functions as a second bedroom, but does not have a separate door, or closet for that matter. The home is nicely designed and fits well in the neighborhood and it’s property. The owner actually had to get a variance for a reduced backyard setback (which abuts my sideyard), to make it work. The woman who built the home had raised her family in the house, but she was now living in her home alone. Her original plan was to move into the second unit and rent the main house. But in the end she decided to stay in the large house so there would be room for her children and grandchildren when they visited and she rented the second unit.

Secondary Dwelling Unit

Secondary Dwelling Unit

The house is on it’s third set of renters. The first 2 families were each a single-mom with 1 daughter. A married couple recently moved into the house part-time. The unit worked well for the single-parent with 1 child, and was probably more affordable than renting a house on it’s own parcel. There are a significant number of single-parent households today and they often do not have the same financial capacity as two-parent households which makes it difficult for them to find housing in Sebastopol.IMG_20150327_155941151

The previous renters in the house next door had to move out as the new property owners needed to move in while they renovated the main house on the property. It took the woman several months to find replacement housing during which time she spent house-sitting or living with friends. I know it was a stressful and challenging time for the woman and her daughter, but in the end they did find something that suits them. Another recently divorced friend with 2 children also had to find new housing and spent months looking for something in town. She was finally able to find a small home for rent, but again after several very stressful months, and in the end the home she ended up with was less than ideal, but all she could afford and find at the time.

I think we need to take a look at our secondary dwelling unit ordinance, and allow for larger second units. These could serve to house underserved population in our community all without needing to expand our infrastructure and without significant impact on our existing community. I think we should allow second units up to 1,000 sf which would allow for 2 decent-sized bedrooms. In order to allow for the larger units, I think a parcel should have a minimum size, and maybe include the second unit in a maximum lot coverage. it certainly wouldn’t work well on my 3,750 sf lot, but there are certainly some larger lots in town that could easily accommodate a 1,000 sf second unit. The nearby city of Novato allows second dwelling units up to 1,000 sf on lots over 10,000 sf. There is another property in my neighborhood that has a second building on the property that actually contains 2 additional units. As far as I can tell, it provides affordable housing, at no detriment to the rest of the neighborhood.

Single parents, young families, young adults living in shared housing, the elderly, families working in the lower wage service or agricultural industries, all could benefit from having more, and larger, second dwelling units in Sebastopol. Housing for these populations will keep a strong mix of people and incomes in our town which is important for a vibrant community. It enriches our lives to mix with people who might be from different income levels or age brackets, or ethnic backgrounds. And these units also make housing more affordable for the property owners by providing an additional source of income. My new neighbors have told me that one of the reasons they purchased the property was because it had an income-generating unit.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

This home has a studio unit on the lower floor. Great for a young single person.

Not only will these larger second units provide affordable housing for a segment of the population that has a difficult time finding it, but when built in town they allow for the residents of the second dwelling units opportunity to walk and bike more than getting in their cars. We do not need to build more infrastructure (streets, water, sewer, gas etc.) to accommodate these additional families, but rather use existing infrastructure. It increases the density without impacting the overall character of our neighborhoods. Secondary dwelling units create additional housing in our already built-up environment and take pressure off adding new housing outside of town, which will only adds to more traffic congestion.

The Sebastopol City Council will be reviewing the draft Housing Element of the General Plan on March 31st, 2015. They should approve strong language in support of secondary dwelling units and allow for larger units to provide housing for a wider variety of incomes and family types.

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Sebastopol is in need of a strong vision and development policies that support that vision.  The city’s general plan was last updated in 1994 and is required to be updated by 2014.  The time is right to shape a vision for our future.  Without a strong vision, Sebastopl will continue to develop in a piecemeal fashion as it has been.  The result of this piecemeal development has been a poorly defined ‘core’ and emphasis on accommodating vehicular traffic at the expense of other modes of transportation.

Sebastopol had once been the civic, cultural and commercial center for the surrounding community.  The downtown focus of the community was eroded with the introduction of the car and development patterns that favored cars over people, as happened in so many places across the country.  Commercial activities spread from the center of town along the north-south state highway which diffused the importance of downtown.   People are now realizing the importance of vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods strengthen the local economy, contain sprawl, support community and healthier lifestyles.  Sebastopol needs to develop a strong urban core along these lines.  If we can create a strong downtown,  I believe Sebastopol can once again become the civic, cultural and commercial center for the area known locally as West County.

In 2003, the city began a process to create a specific plan for the area to the northeast of downtown which had become known as the Northeast Area.  The area had developed through the years as the apple-processing zone of town and primarily contains warehouses and light industrial uses today.  The area had been crossed by railroad spurs which have been removed but have left their legacy in various rights-of-way and odd-shaped parcels.  The area lacks through streets and a general connection to the rest of town but is situated between downtown and the eastern boundary of Sebastopol which is the Laguna de Santa Rosa.  In its current configuration it is a barrier to this local natural resource.  But the location holds great potential to expand the downtown core and connect to the resource we have been ignoring for years.

The city hired a consultant, Design Community & Environment, to complete the specific plan.  The process took several years and involved numerous public meetings including community workshops, meetings with property owners, and public hearings including design review board, planning commission and city council.  In the end, the design review board and planning commission both recommended approval but the city council never adopted the plan.  It’s probably sitting on a shelf in the planning office.  A strong vocal opposition came forward during the draft approval process and succeeded in completely derailing the plan.  Things had been moving rather well to that point and the proponents of the project were not prepared to adequately address the opposition.

This was unfortunate because the plan provided the groundwork for creating an effective pedestrian-oriented mixed-use environment which is exactly what must happen in the Northeast Area.  Many of the parcels in the area were rezoned from industrial to allow for a mixture of commercial, retail and residential uses and a SmartCode form-based code was included as part of the specific plan.  It required green development features, and incentivized others.  It was a progressive vision for an underutilized area of town.  It was a plan for the future that included new residences, office, retail and civic space.  It would have given future developers direction for how development should occur in that area of town, and allowed for higher density development than the existing zoning code allowed for.

But as I’ve said, it was never adopted.  One of the biggest arguments posited by the opposition was that the plan would increase traffic congestion.  The current general plan has a level of service (LOS) standard for downtown intersections that would have been exceeded at peak hours if/when the plan was fully implemented (many downtown intersections already operate at LOS F during PM peak traffic).  The specific plan included language to drop the LOS requirement at downtown intersections from the general plan while acknowledging that successful downtowns are often congested places.  Sebastopol does have its traffic issues, but they are of limited duration, primarily from 3-6 in the afternoon, although the public perception is that traffic is much worse.  This is a topic for a future post.  Here is an interesting discussion regarding LOS standards and traffic modelling and why they are misapplied in downtown settings such as this.

I could see that without a plan such as the Northeast Area Specific Plan that the area could be developed in a random manner which is exactly what is starting to happen.  A large development called The Barlow has started construction at the east end of the Northeast Area.  This development, while having good intentions, could have been so much better had the specific plan been adopted.  I think the development is as good as can be expected under current zoning, but it is essentially single-story buildings, surrounded by parking.  The strength of the development lies in the tenants.  Most are locally grown businesses, many featuring locally grown foods and artisan food producers.  What is lacking is any residential development at this point.  The residential component is important to create the clients for the new businesses as well as the existing businesses downtown.  The Barlow will also add an important through street connection to provide additional circulation options through downtown.

The Barlow Site Plan

Another result of the failure of the Northeast Area Plan is a proposed CVS/Chase bank development.  Also very suburban in nature, the development includes about 20,000 sf of development on a 2.45 acre site (a FAR of 0.18) at one of the most prominent intersections in downtown.  http://ci.sebastopol.ca.us/page/special-projects.  The project was rejected by the city planning commission, a ruling which was overturned by the City Council.  The design of the project was rejected by the design review board, a decision which was upheld by the council.  It remains to be seen what course the developer will take at this point and if the project is dead, or will come back revised.  This site needs to be a mixed-use multi-story building to be good urban design.  This is what was required by the smartcode, but not by current zoning.

CVS/Chase Site Plan

With current significant development proposals coming forward, we have no time to waste.  We must come together to create a vision for a mixed-use pedestrian friendly urban environment that provides housing for a mix of incomes, local availability of goods and services and access to transportation options to secure Sebastopol’s position as the civic, cultural and commercial center of West County.  This vision MUST be supported by general plan policies and a zoning code so developers know what is expected of them.  Without a vision and required supporting development documents the core of our downtown will continue to be eroded and we will have lost a significant opportunity.

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