Archive for the ‘zoning’ Category

Just read a great blog post from Mr. Money Mustache. Check it out The Happy City and our $20 Trillion Opportunity. It is a succinct description of the inefficiencies of our current development paradigm in the United States. It relates very directly to work I’ve been doing with Urban Community Partnership and the work of Strong Towns.

Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog and I’d suggest you check out some of his other posts. The blog is generally about creating personal financial freedom. Enjoy.

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I went to a conference recently and participated in a tour and session on ‘Missing Middle Housing.’ Missing Middle housing is a term coined by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. Missing Middle refers to housing types between a single-family home and multi-family apartments that are compatible in scale to single-family residential neighborhoods. Some examples include duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments and bungalow courts. These were common housing types at one time and may still be found in older neighborhoods but they are generally not compliant with zoning codes developed post WWII and we subsequently do not see them built much anymore.

In older neighborhoods these housing types served an important function as affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods. They provide a diversity of housing choices for households of different sizes and incomes in predominately single-family home neighborhoods. Individual units of Missing Middle housing are generally smaller than average home size today and even when multiple units are combined on one property, the overall scale still fits in neighborhoods with single-family homes. They help support walkable neighborhoods with transit, services and amenities within walking distance by increasing the number of residents in a given area.

Missing Middle housing often result in housing densities in the range of 16-35 units/acre. But as was discussed at the conference only looking at density can be very misleading. Density is very abstract for most people and not a good way to evaluate whether a project ‘fits’ in a neighborhood or not. It really has much more to do with the scale and detailing of the building than with the resulting density.

I decided to investigate Missing Middle housing in Sebastopol with a couple of examples.


img_20160316_122149404.jpgimg_20160321_174449244.jpgThis is an apartment building on the corner of Main Street and Calder. Built in the early 20th century, it is just south of the downtown core where the street is populated mostly by  early 20th century single-family homes, some of which have been converted to commercial buildings. This building has 6 apartments. I believe they are a mix of 1 and 2 bedrooms and probably some of the more affordable rental units in town. I think if asked, most people would find the building is appropriately scaled and fits well in the neighborhood.

The lot size for this property is 9,846 sf or 0.23 acres. The resulting density is 26 units per acre. I think there might be 3 off-street parking spaces.


The on-site parking for a 6 unit apartment building. Not only is  this not enough parking under the current zoning code it also does not meet any modern standard for the design of a parking lot. No striped spaces, driveway access is not wide enough, no accessible parking space, etc.

This property is currently zoned Office Commercial. That zoning designation does allow for residential uses with a maximum of 1 unit per 2,900 sf of lot area. On this parcel that would allow 3 units. The parking requirement is 3 spaces for every 2 units if they are limited to 1-bedroom. A 2-bedroom unit would require 2 parking spaces on its own. So if you were to develop three 2-bedroom units you would be required to provide 6 parking spaces on the site. If you built three 1-bedroom units you could probably get away with 4 parking spaces. So today you could build half the number of units currently on the site, and need to double the amount of on-site parking. The current 6 unit building with 3 on-site spaces is an existing non-conforming use of the property.

However, I don’t believe anyone would find this building out of place, or that it generates too much traffic, or that it creates a parking shortage in the neighborhood. Residents of this building can easily walk downtown and have a relatively affordable rent. But we’ve zoned this kind of building out of existence.

I live around the corner from this building.

High St-Duplex

My house

My house is modest bungalow built in 1922 with 2-bedrooms and 1 bath, a little over 1,000 sf. My lot is 3,750 sf (0.09 acres) which results in a density of 11 units/acre. (for readers not familiar with the measurement  of density you take the number of units and divide by the lot size in acres. It’s like determining how many units would be created if you built out an entire acre of land with my exact property).

My lot is zoned Residential Single Family 2. This is considered a medium density single-family home district. I’ve realized there are a lot of requirements in this zone that my house does not comply with. Minimum lot size is 6,000 sf in my zoning district which results in a density of 7 units per acre, hardly what I would consider medium density. My lot density of 11 units/acre is a bit more medium density in my mind. Minimum lot width is 60′ in this district; mine is 50′.

The front yard setback in this district is 20′. There is an exception that if the block is already developed, the front setback may be the average of the setback of the improved lots on the block. So my 12′ setback technically complies because all my neighbors have setbacks less than 20′. I’ll also note that the rear yard setback is 20′ (my house is about 16′ from the rear property line) so my 75′ deep lot would be limited to building in the center 35′ if I stuck to the current zoning requirements.

I started to wonder about the creation of a duplex on my property. Doubling the size of my house would still only be about 2,100 sf which is still below the average size of a single-family home built today. Adding an identical unit on the second floor is perfectly conceivable and would not look out of place in the neighborhood.

High St-Duplex

My house as a duplex – please excuse the crude photoshopping…

But it would not be allowed by current zoning which for one does not allow duplexes. Creating a duplex would increase the density to 22 units/acre. Far above the current allowed 7 units per acre.

With a duplex I would be required to provide 4 on-site parking spaces. I have a single-car width driveway along the side of my house (which I currently don’t park in because my car bottoms-out when I try to get into it). I don’t know if I would be allowed to provide all 4 spaces tandem style (one behind the other) but it’s the only way to fit 4 spaces on-site. Parking spaces are required to be 18′ long which would reach 72′ into my 75′ deep lot. Which is technically is achievable, although probably not desirable as it would consume nearly 20% of my lot area.

I am allowed to create a second dwelling unit on my property. Sebastopol limits second dwelling units to 840 sf. So instead of doubling my house footprint I could build a second floor addition and make it a separate unit, but the size would be limited to 840 sf. Not bad, but I’m not sure what harm another 160 sf would cause, which is the size of another bedroom, or a home office. The parking requirement for a second dwelling unit is only 1 on-site parking space which is easier. A second dwelling unit also does not count toward the density of a parcel. So I could add a second dwelling unit and not increase the density as far as the zoning code is concerned.

Through the General Plan update process currently underway, the medium density residential land use would be increased to 12 units/acre which would allow my current property to be in zoning compliance. But really, what harm would come of allowing two 1,000 sf units on my property? It would provide me with rental income, another family with an affordable apartment and increase the number of people that can walk to the amenities and services that downtown Sebastopol has to offer.

Sebastopol real estate is expensive and there is a lot of concern about creating more affordable housing. Updating our zoning code to allow more missing middle housing would go a long way to helping with the affordability problem. I’ll discuss some ways this can happen in a future post.


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I like the way this blog post illustrates what would happen if our traditional downtowns were required to provide parking at today’s zoning code parking ratios. You can understand why we have so much strip commercial development. This is something I struggle with when considering infill development opportunities in Sebastopol. Any new development will essentially be required to provide the parking required by our current zoning code on it’s site. This will not create a good walkable environment. We need to get a handle on downtown parking.

Surrey Parking Standards.

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Today’s post will be an update on the Sebastopol Charter School’s pursuit of a new 20 acre campus located on the periphery of Sebastopol. If you’re interested in reading previous posts on this topic please see the following links; Smart School Siting -1,  Smart School Siting – 2 and Smart School Siting – 3.

The school has filed a Use Permit application with Sonoma County. The current zoning of the 2 parcels that make up the 20 acre site is Rural Residential with a density that would allow up to 10 single-family homes to be built. A public school is an allowed use with the approval of a use permit. As part of the use permit process the county planning department sends out a letter of referral to other interested agencies or departments in the county for comments on the application. As the proposed site is adjacent to the Sebastopol city limits and in the city’s sphere of influence the city received a referral letter.

At their meeting this week, the city council discussed their response to the referral request. I was pleased that the council members were unanimous in their opposition to the project. While all council members stated their support and appreciation for the school and what it brings to our community, they all felt that the proposed site was not an appropriate one for a school and the relocation of the school to this property would generally have a negative impact on the larger community. I was impressed with the level of the discussion and how the council members really seem to understand the planning issues involved with the proposed relocation.The discussion focused on planning issues related to sprawl and the fact that the proposed site is, without a doubt, a drive to location.The site limits the ability of children to walk and bike to school and will increase traffic impacts throughout town.

Again, circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site.

Circles represent a half-mile radius centered on school campuses. The red circle is centered on the location of the proposed Sebastopol Charter School campus. Note how few homes are located within a half mile of the site. The blue circles are the current Charter School locations, yellow are Sebastopol Union School District campuses and purple is another elementary school site. The dashed line indicates the city’s Urban Growth Boundary.

As I have pointed out previously, even though the site is on a multi-use trail, it is simply too far from the residential neighborhoods for most students to walk or bike. Plus the fact that the trail runs through a predominately rural landscape with no eyes to supervise activity. I am a huge proponent of kids learning to get themselves around on their own (ask my daughter) and even I would not let my daughter walk alone on the trail. Even for the neighborhoods that are closest to the site, the only real route to the school would be along a state highway with strip development on both sides. It’s a completely car-oriented, pedestrian hostile environment 

The council discussed possible mitigation measure which included sidewalks, crosswalks and other traffic control measures, all of which are likely cost-prohibitive for the school to take on, and in the end I don’t know if they would really improve the walkability/bikability of the location.

The current city council clearly understands that we need to be creating more opportunities for our community to get around town without the need of a car. This serves not only those in the community that cannot drive, like our children, but all of us that want to live in a more human-scaled environment. At the same meeting, the council approved an ordinance prohibiting any future drive-through uses. (The city has had an ordinance against fast food drive-throughs for some time. They instituted a temporary moratorium on drive-throughs a couple of years ago, I think in response to the effort of CVS to build a new store with a drive-through downtown. The CVS project abandoned both the pharmacy drive-through and a drive-through ATM.)

The council expressed concern that the proposed school would be outside the city’s urban growth boundary which was approved by voters nearly 20 years ago. The urban growth boundary was implemented to preserve surrounding rural open space, focus future development in already developed areas of town and prevent auto-oriented sprawl. The proposed school site is clearly auto-oriented sprawl and not in the best interest of the larger community.


Current Sebastopol Charter School location on Main Street. The school occupies the second floor and the ground floor on the side street. The Main Street frontage includes 3 locally-owned retail businesses.

The school, I’m sure, intendeds to be on this site for decades. Decades of parents forced to drive their children to school. And why? Because it was the original vision for the Charter School. Well, that vision is simply out of date. We know more now than we did when that vision was created. The vision needs to evolve to the reality of a world facing the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The school does not need this property to succeed. The school is a model of success in the charter school Waldorf movement. Classes are full and most have waiting lists. Parents are not choosing this school because it might someday be located on a 20 acre campus, with gardens and orchards. Parents are choosing this school because of the excellent education children receive. They are choosing it for the community of teachers and parents, and the values the school teaches. My daughter has been at this school for 9 years. She’ll graduate in the spring. She has received a top notch education that I will always be thankful for. And she has done it while attending the school in its current configuration.

This is an important land use decision that should not be rubber stamped. The city council will be sending a letter to the counting stating that they do not feel the proposed site is an appropriate location for a school. The ultimate decision will lie with the county planning commission. I hope they take the opinions of the Sebastopol City Council to heart and see that this is not an appropriate location for a new school in the 21st century. The proposed school location is what sprawl looks like. It’s an example of the way we’ve been building schools in the era of the automobile. It’s not a model of how we should be building schools.

For more information on the proposed school site see this link.

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The word density tends to elicit a strong, generally negative, response from many people. The mere mention of the word brings out opponents to a proposed development project, en masse.  Particularly in a small town like Sebastopol, density seems to conjure images of overcrowded tenement-like living conditions, faceless apartment tower blocks, crime, congestion, and pollution. Some people live in small towns like Sebastopol to avoid what they perceive as the ills of living in higher-density cities. However, there are many examples of higher density neighborhoods that are lovely places to be and quality walkable environments depend on some level of higher density to be successful. San Francisco is one of the most sought after places to live in the country. There may be many reasons for this but one certainly has to be because it is such a walkable city. Even with all those hills it’s a great place to walk. The numerous commercial neighborhoods thrive because of the number of people living within walking distance. Small town commercial districts also need people to survive and a certain amount of density is necessary. It is obvious, however, that all density is not created equal and we need to support the development of ‘good’ density if we want our towns to thrive without being choked with traffic.

Density is a metric that is used in zoning codes to describe the number of dwelling units per acre allowed in a given land use category. Unfortunately density as a measure of dwelling units per acre or people per acre is a sterile metric. It says nothing about the experiential nature of a neighborhood which is critical in understanding whether the allowed density will help create a walkable environment. A 3-story development of 30 units/acre with well-detailed architecture, front stoops along a generously wide sidewalk with street trees and quality street furniture can feel much less dense than a bland 20 story apartment building surrounded by open space and parking built to the same ‘density’. Simply building a 30 acre/unit apartment building without considering how it will contribute to the pedestrian environment will not in itself create the desired outcome. The pedestrian realm must be considered. Sidewalk width, landscaping, street design, building architecture all impact how the building will connect to the larger neighborhood. There are many examples of both good and bad density. The Lincoln Institute has a great section of it’s website and has published a book Visualizing Density devoted to understanding the many faces of density.

A successful walkable urban environment depends on a mix of uses and people frequenting those uses. It has shops, restaurants and business open throughout the day. It has an interesting streetscape with good landscaping, seating and dynamic shop windows. A good walkable urban environment creates opportunities for spontaneous social interaction. This happens often in a small town. I almost always run into someone I know when I walk downtown. It has been shown that places where these spontaneous meetings occur are more creative and productive. They also serve to strengthen community connections.

Opposing density for the sake of opposing density will limit our ability to create a successful walkable environment. I think it’s safe to say most residents of Sebastopol want a thriving Main Street. But for Main Street businesses to thrive, they need customers. Most of the existing older residential neighborhoods around downtown are in the 4-8 units/acre density range. This is not very dense. There are also very few mixed-use buildings downtown that contain residential units. (In regards to actual ‘downtown’ housing I think there might be 3 buildings with at least 1 residential unit on the second floor. I’m sure there are no more than 10 second floor units downtown.) With the addition of The Barlow we now have more retail and restaurant destinations downtown, which is exciting, but I am concerned that we lack the amount of residential density necessary for these businesses to thrive (as discussed in a previous post, the 12 acre development does not include any residential units – a huge missed opportunity). With the limited number of people living within walking distance of downtown, many people patronizing downtown businesses have no other option but to drive. This is what creates congestion downtown.

By increasing the number of people living downtown we can reduce traffic congestion as those people will be able to walk to their destinations and leave the car at home. Unfortunately there are a limited number of sites available downtown that could be developed with a mix of residential units. The city should be doing all it can to support the development of housing on these remaining parcels. There is a 2.5 acre parcel across the street from the town plaza that is ripe for a mixed-use development that includes housing. The city council recently approved formation of a committee to evaluate the future development potential of the site. This will hopefully lead to the successful marketing of the property to a developer who will include housing as part of the eventual program.

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

Old lumber yard parcel. 2.5 site across the street from town plaza

The Sebastopol Northeast Area Specific Plan had proposed 300 new residential units in a 20 acre area (or 15 units/acre) adjacent to our existing downtown. (The 12 acre Barlow development was a significant part of the plan area). This is a medium range density and something that was completely achievable. But the proposed density was a rallying cry for people opposed to the plan – and a significant reason for the failure of the adoption of the plan. Opponents painted a picture of a crowded congested city and implied that the proposed number of units would be developed overnight inciting fear in the community for those slow to accept change. What was muddled in the discussion was although the specific plan would have allowed for the development of that total number of units, it did not require it. The current zoning designation for the downtown core zoning designation ( which encompasses most of the downtown care) allows residential units to be built when part of a mixed use project at the density of 1 unit/1,000 sf of lot area. This is an effective density of 45 units/acre. (By contrast, Sebastopol’s high density residential zoning district allows for half that density.)  This is a fairly high density for a small town like Sebastopol and would be allowed by right under the current zoning. The failure of the Northeast Area Specific Plan dealt a real blow to the creation of more housing downtown.

We need to learn to describe housing projects by a means other than density. We need to explain the real benefits to the public realm that will occur when we provide more people living within walking distance of working, shopping, transit and recreation. A project is more than it’s density. A great pedestrian environment is about the qualitative experience, not the quantitative which is a limitation of the word ‘density.’ Density downtown needs to be understood in a qualitative manner and not dismissed because of the negative associations it triggers for some. Walter Chambers writes in the Voice of San Diego that instead of talking about density in the units/acre way we should discuss it in terms of social exchanges per acre. I like this idea, because more density does allow for more social interactions which are an important aspect of a great place. If anyone has other ways to describe density I’d love to hear about it.



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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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