May 28, 2019
by Will Carruthers
At a May 2 meeting, the Sonoma County Planning Commission narrowly passed a policy allowing property owners to build second homes on nearly 2,000 agricultural parcels in the unincorporated county.
The change was brought to the commission as part of the county’s effort to speed housing production in hopes of reducing home prices.
Critics of the proposal argued that the new Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), which can be as large as 1,200 square feet, will not serve low-income residents and will increase population density in rural areas rather than within city limits.
A staff report states that the proposal is part of the county’s effort to “eliminate unneeded regulatory constraints to the production of affordable housing” and to “increase opportunities for the production of affordable housing,” two of the housing goals recommended in the county’s latest General Plan, a report that outlines the county's goals on a wide range of issues.
The motion would remove a restriction on the construction of ADUs on certain parcels zoned for agricultural use in the unincorporated county. Under current rules, property owners can ask for an exemption from zoning rules in order to build an ADU, however the process tends to be costly and time consuming.
The commission ultimately approved a motion that allowing ADUs on 1,924 parcels. An initial proposal from county staff would have included only 1,377 parcels each smaller than 10 acres.
The policy would exclude parcels within high fire hazard severity zones or in an area where new buildings would affect groundwater levels, according to a staff report. Owners would not be allowed to rent the units on short-term rental websites.
According to a recent online survey of 116 ADU inhabitants cited by county planning staff, the average rent for one of the units is $1,100 per month, a rate that falls in the county’s Moderate Income housing bracket.
Moderate Income housing serves households making up to 120 percent of the area median income, approximately $100,900 for a family of four in 2018, according to figures from the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.
Proponents said that the motion would help increase housing production in the county while allowing small farmers to augment their income by renting an ADU on their property.
“The benefit of this is preserving what I think is the fabric of the community here. Trying to keep young families and grandmothers from changing hands,” Commissioner Cameron Mauritson said.
John Lowry, the chair of the commission, voted against the proposal, saying that the policy would encourage the wrong kind of housing in the wrong places.
“Low income housing – as well as moderate income housing - really should be produced in higher density areas. We should be building at higher density and making those places better to live,” Lowry said.
On the other hand, the current rules governing where ADUs are permitted can seem arbitrary under the current rules, Lowry added.
Teri Shore, the North Bay regional director of the Green Belt Alliance, urged the commission to add the proposal, along with other recent housing streamlining proposals, to the General Plan update process, so that the impact of the policies can be studied together.
“This would significantly add development to rural communities. If we really want to add ADUs around the countryside, then I think we need to do a bit more of an analysis of the impacts including additional vehicle miles traveled, additional people, and the cumulative impacts with the other (housing) initiatives,” Shore told the commission.
Commissioners Todd Tamura and John Lowry voted against the motion.
The plan will next be considered at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors. A county spokesperson estimated the vote will take place in August, but no date has been set.
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