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Op-Ed: Stellar Job by Novato Planning Staff in Answering SUNN

Stand Up for Neighborly Novato, which advocates for more affordable housing options, got all its questions and accusations answered by planning manager Elizabeth Dunn.

Stand Up for Neighborly Novato sent a letter Oct. 15 to the Novato Planning Commission on the very night that the commission reviewed the city's draft housing element before it was sent to the California Department of Housing and Community Development for review.

The letter CC'd Melinda Coy at the state HCD so that the complaints were sent to HCD before the City of Novato's planners could answer it. No one individual or group of individuals signed their names to the letter.

SUNN's letter says, "The proposed across-the-board maximum density of 20 units per acre for non-senior housing and 30 units per acre for senior housing could significantly underutilize these valuable infill properties. We (SUNN) recommend the North Redwood overlay zone include a provision for increased density, while limiting building heights to three stories."

SUNN charges that 62 units from the previous planning period were not zoned and should be added to the new element as 62 lower-income units.  It charges that the new element "overstates by 71 the lower-income units built, under construction, approved or in-process January 2007-September 2012" and suggests corrections.

SUNN then adds the 71 units to the 62 units and conclude that more opportunity sites are needed because 133 more units are necessary to build.

It also considers the sites currently included to be "too small, too remote, have environmental constraints and/or should be aggregated with the adjacent site to make them viable within the short time remaining in this planning period."

Elizabeth Dunn, Novato's planning manager, at the request of the Novato Planning Commission, respectfully answered all of the charges in a five-page letter (See attached). Dunn deferred SUNN's proposal about the North Redwood Corridor to the reactivation of the North Redwood Corridor Planning Study. She then cited a letter dated March 24, 2009, confirming that the all the required units from the previous planning period were zoned and recognized by the state, defusing the charge about the 62 units.

Dunn proceeded to go into specifics about each project disputed by SUNN making up the 71 units, having consulted with Paul McDougal and Melinda Coy of HCD in getting their affirmation of the city's count. Dunn's response to SUNN's critique of the opportunity sites was this:

"Staff believes it is important to point out that these factors and others were considered for a number of sites city-wide through a lengthy public process … the five sites included in Table 49 were identified as the most appropriate based on a range of feedback received from a large number of actively engaged community participants."

Kudos to the Novato Planning Department staff for being on the job with the right stuff!

Tina McMillan December 12, 2012 at 11:41 AM
While SUNN has maintained that they represent the entire community, it seems clear from their action against the city that they represent only affordable housing developers. The draft housing element was a compromise taking into consideration the needs of the entire city in the planning and development process. All affordable housing projects get bonuses for development depending on the kind of housing they build. Multifamily housing with a base of 20 units per acre can easily become 30 or more units per acre with the bonus. There are recent court cases that have allowed AH builders to create even larger projects with the bonus increase being treated as a minimum rather than a maximum. SUNN's preemptive strike against the city is demonstrative of their true intentions. The city's draft housing element favors AH developers in every way possible from streamlining projects to no CEQA review to lowering fees for sanitary and water. The main compromise to existing residents was lowering the density in multifamily housing to reflect the suburban feel of our town as more accurate than the metropolitan designation by the state. HCD will be critiquing the element on their own. SUNN's efforts to sandbag the city will not go unnoticed the next time they claim to represent the best interests of all of Novato. Thank you Pam for sharing the information about the city planning letter in response to SUNN.
Trish Boorstein December 12, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Tina I hope we'll hear more about these recent court cases relating to density bonuses. Vigilance must be ongoing to protect what this community has collaborated on during the housing process, what Elizabeth Dunn so eloquently describes as "actively engaged community participants". Thank you Pam for commenting and making this letter to SUNN transparent. Let the city Planning's response speak for itself.
Emily December 12, 2012 at 08:20 PM
While I think the SUNN letter was a purely political manuever and should have had signatures showing who actually wrote it, I also agree with some of things they mentioned in their letter regarding the proposed sites. I feel the planning commission was bullied by the public in to choosing these sites and tried to make a judgement call based on less than stellar sites. There are a lot of problems with the approach the Planning commission had with the public, they claim they offered "extensive outreach" but I live near a finalized site and can tell you I only received one generic notification in my mail box. The notification was after the site had been finalized. I don't know about you, but when you put words together like "extensive outreach" it brings to mind phone calls, people knocking on doors, even an email. It is sad to think the Planning Commission thinks everyone reads the same news sites or papers. And this letter is available for anyone to read, a quick web search and I found it. So to suggest SUNN was being less than transparent was silly Trish B. They may have ulterior motives but they are a loud voice and not going to go away.
Trish Boorstein December 13, 2012 at 12:24 AM
Thank you Emily for pointing out that with a web search you were able to find this letter. I've always been a proponent of making information available thru as many sources possible, including Patch. For some, Patch is a highly readable and accessible source, though of course not the only one.
Tina McMillan December 13, 2012 at 05:23 AM
When the SUNN letter was first written we had to ask for a copy from the planning commission. The sites chosen were not the ones suggested by the Ad Hoc group but by the city itself. Commissioner Jay Strauss made the point that if they used the Birkenstock site they could set aside enough space to potentially develop for many building cycles. I understand why some of the parcels along Novato Blvd were chosen. No matter where you build the real issue is the housing bonus law. I am still not clear what the cap is on density bonuses in AH developments. "The previous law allowed for a 25% density bonus when housing projects provided between 10 – 20% of the units affordable…In addition, cities and counties needed to provide at least one “concession” such as financial assistance or a reduction in development standards. The new law significantly reduces the amount of units that a developer must provide in order to receive a density bonus and requires cities and counties to provide between one to three concessions, depending upon the percentage of affordable units that the developer provides." "They may want to amend their ordinances to also specify how to calculate both the minimum and the maximum number of additional units that might be granted pursuant to this section and to specify the 35 percent maximum stipulated as a result of SB 1818." http://www.calapa.org/attachments/articles/15/SB-1818-Q-A-Final-1-26-05.pdf
Lloyd December 13, 2012 at 07:44 AM
The crucial point is the SUNN letter intentionally tried to intimidate the City to altering its position and housing element proposal. If SUNN is so interested in representing the people of Novato let them propose that the public gets the opportunity to vote rather than be bullied by them and the State. The claim of representing low income workers is disingenuous. If they were truly trying to get affordable housing they would have been supportive of second units & smaller size developments. Large 50-60+ projects are difficult to gather consensus and support. The City realizes this, the public has supported smaller projects and Novato has built more than it's fair share of AH to date. We simply don't have the fiscal capacity to keep adding unfunded mandates. It seems SUNN believes that the people currently living in Novato are somehow obligated to build themselves into bankruptcy in order for profit developers to gain tax credits. I say congratulations to the City of Novato, and the City Council for looking at the facts, listening to reasonable alternatives and crafting an element that satisfies our responsibilities.
Trish Boorstein December 13, 2012 at 05:25 PM
ps Emily, I was referring to City's letter above not SUNN's. When I use transparent I mean transparent to Patch readers. The city has hired a new PR consultant to help with public outreach, you might want to contact her to express your concerns regarding notifications since the Housing Element will have to be updated again. Now that "Transparent Community-Based Planning" has been removed from the updated Novato Strategic Plan (a few of us tried desperately, I pleaded at the final city meeting to put the "Community-Based" back in before final approval, to no avail), the city might not feel so compelled to encourage this kind of collaboration in the future. We will all have to stay involved in whatever way we can, you can get emails from the city if you sign up and/or consider joining NCA(Novato Community Alliance) to be updated on these Novato matters.
Emily December 13, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Trish, I am actually referring to a law that states the city must notify homeowners within 600 feet of a proposed property line. They did not do that, and it is a shame (possibly a legal matter) The new PR person might be a help, but my point was I should not have to seek out the information the city was proposing they should notify me of the proposal.

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