A plan to build housing for faculty and staff members at Sonoma State University appears to have widespread community support except for one detail: The university’s chosen location is a greenbelt outside of the City of Rohnert Park’s politically popular urban growth boundary.
The university purchased the 88-acre site one year ago and has been in negotiations with the city ever since about the provision of water and sewer services to the proposed development. City officials, however, say the city cannot legally provide the services to a site outside the urban growth boundary (UGB) that voters approved in 2000.
“We’re no closer to resolving our differences now that we were a year ago,” Rohnert Park City Councilman Jake Mackenzie said.
Saying the negotiations are ongoing, Sonoma State officials put forward a more positive face.
“Out timeline is as soon as possible. People continue to talk all the time,” said Susan Kashack, SSU associate vice president for communications and marketing. “We hope to have things really ironed out within the next six months.”
Housing has been an issue for Sonoma State— located in Rohnert Park, just south of Santa Rosa — for years, and the problem has compounded during recent years with the rise in housing prices. University leaders say that affordable housing is crucial to attract and retain faculty and staff members who would have their choice of housing options in university towns elsewhere in the United States at a fraction of Sonoma County’s $630,000 median price.
So in 2005, a university auxiliary acquired 88 acres northeast of town for $4.2 million. The university has plans to develop 400 single-family houses and 32 units of attached housing, according to Neil Markley, SSU senior director for entrepreneurial activities. The university is also considering developing a community building, parks, gardens and other assets on the site.
The university chose the property because it is fairly close to campus and was reasonably priced, Kashack explained. The university would like to sell houses to faculty and staff members for prices in the $300,000s, she said.
City officials and community leaders do not quarrel with the university’s goal of providing housing that SSU employees can afford. But the chosen site is agricultural land a mile beyond the Measure E urban growth boundary.
Since 1996, voters in Sonoma County and its cities have approved 10 different urban growth boundary ballot measures, noted Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, the Sonoma-Marin field representative for Greenbelt Alliance.
“I think it’s a really clear mandate from the voters. The university as a neighbor and as a member of the community should respect this mandate,” Pistey-Lyhne said.
Mackenzie, a Greenbelt board member and three-term councilman, agreed.
“We don’t wish to have to have 400 housing units on the northeast side of Rohnert Park outside our UGB,” Mackenzie said. “Very clearly, the reason they bought that property was they could get it cheaply. They figured they were above the city’s rules.”
Indeed, the university is not legally obliged to follow local land use regulations, even those approved by voters. University officials acknowledge that, if the city refuses to provide services, they are considering other options, such as groundwater wells and a large septic system. However, those options are not without drawbacks. Area landowners already have in place an active campaign to limit groundwater pumping because of concerns about aquifer depletion. A septic system would need a permit from a potentially reluctant North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Ron Bendorff, the city’s planning and community development director, said the city has no choice but to deny the services SSU is requesting. “We’d have to go back to the voters. They set the urban growth boundary,” he said.
Bendorff and other city officials point to two growth areas within the UGB as more appropriate sites for university housing. One location is within the university district specific plan area, nearly 300 acres of agricultural and open space just across the street from the SSU campus. In May, the city approved the specific plan calling for 1,645 units of various types of housing and a large commercial village. The city still needs to annex the university district site, but it does lie within the voter-approved growth boundary.
However, the specific plan is in limbo because a week after the city approved it Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Knoel Owen, in a lawsuit filed by a citizens group called the Owl Foundation, rejected a city water supply assessment that was used in the university district project’s environmental impact report. The city is appealing that ruling; in the meantime, the annexation is on hold, according to Bendorff. Sonoma State officials did talk with developer University District, LLC, about acquiring land within the district, but the two parties reached no agreement and have gone their separate ways.
A second option favored by city officials is known as the “Agilent site” — about 170 acres one mile south of campus. Agilent Technologies pulled out of Rohnert Park, leaving behind 750,000 square feet of light industrial buildings. Local developer Codding Enterprises is now working to fill those buildings with new tenants and to develop about 1,800 units of housing and a large commercial center. Roughly half the site is undeveloped.
Bendorff said that the Agilent site project faces at least two years of planning and environmental review, but that it is a “logical” location for university housing. Representatives of Codding and SSU have talked but have reached no agreement, the university’s Markley confirmed. The site does fit within the school’s parameters in that it is a short bike ride from campus, he noted.
“We’ve said from the outset of this process that we don’t want to be in the housing business,” Markley emphasized. “If any developer is willing to come in and provide the product we’re looking for at the price we’re looking for, we’d walk away from our project tomorrow.”
Councilman Mackenzie said he is encouraging the university and Codding to work together, but, he conceded, the city does not get the final say.
Said Bendorff, “I think a lot of cities that are adjacent to major universities have these problems.”
Neil Markley, Sonoma State University Entrepreneurial Services, (707) 664-4068.
Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park councilman, (707) 584-1195.
Ron Bendorff, Rohnert Park Planning and Community Development Department, (707) 588-2236.
Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, Greenbelt Alliance Sonoma-Marin Field Office, (707) 575-3661.