Rural Counties Question Housing Policy
County officials are questioning the state's housing allocation process, which often requires counties to plan for thousands of housing units even as they are also planning to protect agricultural land and open space. Does it make sense, they ask, for a county with limited infrastructure to plan for urban growth when incorporated cities are better positioned to handle new development?
The issue has arisen recently in Napa, Sonoma, and Solano counties. All three are semi-rural counties on the edge of the Bay Area whose local governments were required to submit draft housing elements to the state on January 1. And, to varying extents in all three counties, growth is directed to incorporated cities — away from farmland and open space. In Napa, county officials are currently meeting with city officials to see if they can agree on shifting housing allocations.
Said Napa County Supervisor Bill Dodd, "Consider the fact that we're an agricultural county, and the fact that the state always laments the loss of agricultural land, and the fact that HCD equates agricultural land and open space as land available for housing. There is a huge disconnect there."
Alex Amoroso, senior planner for the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), which allocates fair-share housing goals for the nine-county region, understands what Dodd is saying. During the Bay Area's next round of housing element updates, planners need to weigh agricultural and open space needs, he said. ABAG will have to begin the next round soon, as housing elements must be updated every five years under state law.
"I think that the unincorporated planning issue is something that we need to address, just because more and more counties are moving toward slow growth," Amoroso said.
Julie Bornstein, director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), said the allocation of housing targets within a region is up to the local council of governments (COG), such as ABAG. State housing officials do not necessarily care how a COG divvies up the number of units for which the state says a regional must plan, she said.
"From the state's standpoint, we would hope that additional housing units would be accommodated where there is some infrastructure," Bornstein said. "We want to discourage sprawl and encourage preservation of farmland."
The state and regional housing allocation processes are among the topics of discussion for a housing element reform working group that is meeting in Sacramento (see , November 2001, in the Archives). The working group, headed by Assemblymembers Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa), has been meeting since the close of the 2001 legislative year and includes representatives from across the spectrum — local government, developers, environmentalists and housing advocates.
The participants have not yet reached many agreements, but some hope that a legislative package emerges from the working group later this year. The legislation would likely include increased enforcement of housing element compliance, and measures to make the housing element law work better for local governments, according to sources at the Capitol.
The Napa County experience
Officials in Napa County and their neighbors in Sonoma and Solano counties contend the housing element law does not work well from them. With guidance from Wiggins, Napa County established a committee of two county supervisors and two representatives from each of the five cities in the county. The committee has met only a few times since forming in late 2001. The idea is to think up ways for the cities to relieve the housing burden on unincorporated Napa County, and for the county to compensate the cities for taking additional housing.
During the regional housing needs determination, ABAG assigned unincorporated Napa County 1,969 housing units, or 28% of the county's overall allocation. Yet the only county areas with much infrastructure are the small communities of Coombsville near Napa, and Angwin outside of St. Helena, and around the Napa County Airport between Napa and American Canyon. Furthermore, Napa County has a number of policies — some of which voters imposed — that protect farmland and the watershed from development.
The most likely place for housing development in unincorporated Napa County is in the pastures near the airport, where the county has struggled since the 1980s to build an industrial park (see CP&DR Legal Digest, September 2001, in the Archives). Supervisor Dodd, however, said planning houses near the airport "is the worst kind of planning." So one possible solution would be for the cities of Napa and American Canyon to annex industrial land near the airport in exchange for accepting more housing units.
Napa Vice Mayor JoAnn Busenbark said the cities are not willing to "bail out" the county, but they are willing to address long-term land use planning. Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga all rely heavily on the wine industry and related tourism.
"It's got incredible potential because of the players around the table," Busenbark said of the new committee. "It's driven by this really intense desire to save our piece of the world."
Amoroso said ABAG is watching the Napa County working group. The goal of the state housing element law is to divide the housing burden evenly across a region, but it is fine if local governments want to redistribute the housing numbers within their sub-region, he said. Solano County may attempt an approach similar to Napa County's
Plenty of room for jobs
Sonoma County officials have strongly criticized the ABAG regional housing needs determination. In fact, ABAG assigned unincorporated Sonoma County 6,800 housing units — about 30% of the county's entire allotment and more units than any other unincorporated county in the Bay Area. Yet the vast majority of development in Sonoma County is in the nine incorporated cities, all of which have growth boundaries.
Sonoma County officials, like their counterparts in Napa, Solano and some other counties, argue that regional planners and state officials refuse to recognize growth-control policies aimed at protecting valuable farmland and open space. "I don't think we can make the numbers they want without busting our general plan," Sonoma County Supervisor Tim Smith told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
But some people say counties are willing to fight only selected growth battles.
"Some of those counties that are not set up well to deal with the housing issue are set up quite well to deal with the business end of things," Amoroso said. The ABAG housing determination was based primarily on projected growth in jobs and households within a jurisdiction, he noted.
Businesses located in unincorporated Napa and Sonoma County, for example, continue to hire many thousands of farmworkers, winery workers and resort employees.
Some environmental groups also question the counties' priorities. Unincorporated Sonoma County's regional housing allocation sounds daunting "if you think of large-lot, single-family houses," said Janet Stone, the livable communities program director for Greenbelt Alliance. The county, however, could meet its allocation of 1,300 very low-income units with about a dozen apartment complexes of roughly three acres apiece in unincorporated communities that already have some infrastructure, she said.
"There is no reason why these areas couldn't accommodate compact housing development," Stone said.
David Grabill, an attorney for Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group, said hundreds of acres within the urban growth boundary for Santa Rosa are available for housing development. Some of the land is within the city's sphere of influence and some is outside. The real issue is a decade-old county policy that directs multi-family developments to cities.
"The county is reluctant to allow apartment development in unincorporated areas, although they have to do it," said Grabill, whose suit over the county's previous housing element resulted in a court order that severely restricted subdivisions and rezonings. "They have the ABAG numbers, just like all the cities do. If the county doesn't provide its share, that just puts more pressure on the cities to provide lower-income housing development."
After months of wrangling, county officials adopted a housing element that they say accommodates the mandated 6,800 units. In fact, said Deputy Planning Director Pete Parkinson, the county did not have to rezone any land because there are adequate sites available in existing unincorporated urban service areas. The county will consider residential projects close to those urban service areas if some development already exists, he said.
The housing element approved by Sonoma County supervisors in late January allows affordable housing developments of up to 20 units-per-acre in commercial and industrial zones, contains provisions for inclusionary zoning, relaxes the regulation of second units, offers density bonuses of up to 100%, and calls for linkage fees on commercial development to fund housing programs. The provision of sewer service remains a significant problem, Parkinson said, because the largest unincorporated urbanized areas are served by the City of Santa Rosa, which is not willing to provide unlimited hookups. Small sanitation districts elsewhere have minimal capacity, he said. The cost and time required to build new wastewater treatment plants is potentially prohibitive, he added.
The battle that Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties have fought is likely to reach far outside the Bay Area in coming years, when other regions complete the regional housing allocation process. Some rural counties welcome housing growth in unincorporated territory, while others — especially some counties in the Sierra Nevada foothills and along the coast — do not.
"I think the state has a real challenge, and that's not lost on me," Napa County Supervisor Dodd said. "The point of this is not to be critical of the state … [but] we're frustrated. We need to make sure that the agricultural nature of Napa County is as important to the state as it is to us."
Dodd even suggested rethinking the regional approach to allocating fair-share housing units. The Solano county cities of Fairfield and Vallejo are located within a 20-minute drive of many Napa County job sites, he pointed out.
"Isn't it more important to make sure you have homes available within a certain proximity to jobs, so that jurisdictional lines are not the issue?" Dodd asked rhetorically.
Jurisdictional lines, however, present an issue that is unlikely to go away. Amoroso said that while ABAG might be willing to let a county and its cities reallocate housing units, no one is going to accept moving fair-share allocations across county lines.
The issue that some people are avoiding is density, said ABAG's Amoroso. Protecting farmland and open space for the long-term requires building denser cities, he said.
"What it all comes down to is, we're not building enough housing," Amoroso said.
Julie Bornstein, Department of Housing and Community Development, (916) 445-4775.
Alex Amoroso, Association of Bay Area Governments, (510) 464-7955.
JoAnn Busenbark, Napa vice mayor, (707) 258-7876.
Bill Dodd, Napa County supervisor, (707) 259-8278.
Janet Stone, Greenbelt Alliance, (415) 398-3730.
David Grabill, Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group, (707) 528-6839.
Pete Parkinson, Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, (707) 565-2563.