Sonoma County embraces denser urban housing developments

Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approved Tuesday a slate of policy changes intended to pave the way for new types of housing, encourage the construction of smaller, more affordable units and help simplify development in certain areas after last year’s wildfires destroyed more than 5,300 homes.

The policy revisions, which only apply to urban areas where sewers are available, created a category for so-called cottage housing, or clusters of smaller units intended to provide options for people who earn too much to qualify for low-income housing but can’t afford market-rate units. It also created the possibility for building housing in some business and industrial districts, allowing workers to live close to jobs or transit hubs.

The board also altered the county’s policy for how density is assigned to each housing unit in certain zones. That allows for smaller units that can be rented at lower prices, such as micro-apartments under 500 square feet and one- to two-bedroom apartments, to count as a fraction of a unit. Previously, the code allowed a single unit to be any size, making it more attractive for developers to build larger units that generate higher rents.

Now, in an area where 10 units are allowed, a developer could choose to build 10 three- bedrooms units, 15 one-bedroom units or 30 micro-apartments.

“The county has moved out of the single-family residential paradigm that has unintentionally locked us into low-density development for generations,” Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said. “We’ve really aligned our policy with our values here.”

The policy change impacts 82 vacant parcels in Larkfield, Geyserville, Guerneville and the Sonoma Valley. Housing fees have already been adjusted to a graduated scale to provide incentives for smaller units, and the county is studying changing its fees for utility connections and to offset impacts on parks and roads, Wick said. Putting those flat fees on a graduated scale rather than charging on a per-unit basis could boost the development of smaller units, he said.

Tuesday’s policy changes also unlocked the potential for clusters of cottage homes in several unincorporated areas of the county, including nearly 200 vacant parcels in west Sonoma County and about 45 in Glen Ellen. Before, building such housing would have required a costly rezoning process, Wick said. The cumulative size of cottages is limited to 2,700 square feet or about the size of a larger single-family home. Each cottage would be around 900 square feet or less.

“(Cottage housing) is something that has a tremendous amount of appeal — people see a dramatic need for workforce housing, and for me, it’s about creating the diversity in housing stock, and that’s something we don’t have out in Forestville, Guerneville or Graton,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, lauding the overall approach. “This will open up more opportunity for folks. We have so many people who are trying to cram into spare bedrooms or living in an RV on someone’s property.”

About 700 parcels would have also been eligible in burned areas of Larkfield-Wikiup, but Supervisor James Gore backed a five-year moratorium on cottages there. About 60 percent of the lots there are on the market, he said, expressing concern that developers might snap up the land to build clustered housing.