About Sonoma's UGB
Sonoma's UGB, at 20 years old, is now in maturity. It has performed exactly the way it was intended: agricultural land and open space beyond the city's borders have been preserved, while sprawl has been avoided. Despite this success, some misconceptions have recently emerged about our UGB as it comes up for renewal. We've listed below several discussion items below to help clarify what the UGB does and does not do.
What is Sonoma's Urban Growth Boundary?
Sonoma's Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) is a voter-passed measure by which the city delineates the area beyond which its city limit border cannot extend and urban development and extension of municipal services cannot occur, except in particular and well-defined cases, including affordable housing. Sonoma's current UGB was placed on the ballot through the initiative process, approved by 64% of its voters in 1999, and went into effect in 2000 for a period of twenty years.
If the UGB is not renewed in 2020, its boundary can be modified by the vote of a simple majority on the City Council. The future size of Sonoma as a small, friendly and welcoming community with a sense of place is too important a decision to be left to only three people in public office, whomever they may be. Unless the City Council agrees to renew the current UGB and its provisions by placing it on the ballot for the November, 2020 election, it will be left to Sonoma's citizens to put it on the ballot.
All nine cities in Sonoma County have created and approved a UGB and, with the exception of Sonoma, each UGB has been or is in the process of being renewed for twenty years or more. Lands beyond the UGB are controlled by the County of Sonoma, which has adopted policies that support the intentions and limitations of each city's UGB.
Historically, UGBs have provided significant benefits to our community because they:
- Reduce driving and vehicle miles traveled and GHGs
- Allow for an inclusive, integrated, diverse community across the income spectrum
- Encourage walking and biking
- Improve public health and safety services
- Control costs to provide water, sewer, roads and parks to more people
- Protect water, air, and environment
- Reduce risk from wildfire
What is the history of Sonoma's UGB?
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the entire Bay Area experienced a land-use development surge, sprawling suburban development that gobbled up previously vacant and agricultural land. This development was generally focused along the major transportation corridors and freeways, but even smaller and less accessible cities like Sonoma were quickly developing as the possibility of increased revenues associated with such development lured government and its land-use decision-making.
In response to the threat of sprawl, and in recognition of the limitations and financial costs of local infrastructure and services such as roads, water and sewer plant capacity, a group of Sonoma's citizens concluded that voter-approved expansion of the city was called for. In addition, in studying the history of rapid development in other cities in the North Bay, it was learned that fees and tax revenues generated from large tract housing developments was not enough to sustain governments’ budgets, and that in the long run, rapid and uncontrolled growth cost far more than the money it generated as police, fire, and public works department budgets swelled. In some cases, cities verged on the brink of bankruptcy.
The risk to open space, natural resources, and agricultural land also was of concern. The forces of land speculation drove up the price of land, and made the development of suburban-style housing the only way to profit from its use. Though in some areas, like Sonoma Valley, vineyard development was also growing, long-term land owners could rarely resist the payoff that housing developers could offer. Thus wildlife habitat and the environment overall were threatened by sprawl, along with the small-scale development patterns which typify Sonoma. It was realized that what had happened in the South and East Bay could happen here. Leaving land use policy to a three member majority of the City Council was determined to be too risky in an age of money-driven influence in politics.
A committee was formed, ballot language developed, signatures gathered and an initiative measure placed on the ballot. Two members of the City Council supported the measure and three did not, and both sides offered arguments to the voters. Ultimately, the measure passed with 64% approval, and in 2000 became the law for the next twenty years.
What are the intentions and effect of Sonoma's UGB?
Sonoma's UGB is intended to strengthen development within our existing urban core, promoting a walkable, human-scaled and diverse town, with protected agricultural lands. It thereby encourages the creative and wise use of the land and parcels within the UGB. By managing land availablilty, the UGB embraces greater care and creativity in the development of land within it.
The UGB encourages higher-density development rather than lower-density development, and makes the creative use of previously under-developed parcels more attractive. Thus older, industrial-type buildings and lots used for automobile storage become more valuable for new and more positive uses, such as multi-family housing, and thus avoids urban abandonment challenges.
The preservation of open space and agricultural lands outside of the UGB are also of foremost concern. The UGB protects wildlife corridors and natural features such as wetlands, creeks and seasonal streams. As the risks to our environment have increased, the necessity to preserve and protect the ecology of the natural systems around us have also increased.
Sonoma's UGB has performed as intended over the past 20 years. Until recently, no attempt to expand the UGB has been made. A number of the largest vacant parcels within the UGB have recently been developed, which demonstrates that the UGB has not constrained growth or development. Most significantly, sprawl has been stopped, which, given the traffic in our area such as the daily congestion on Highway 37, and limited access in all directions, is extremely important.
What is the Sonoma UGB's relationship to housing?
Aside from market forces, housing development in Sonoma is affected primarily by City of Sonoma housing policy, which itself is a reflection of the political will of those on the City Council and the imperatives of City staff. Local housing policy combines such goals, some developed by the city itself and some imposed by outside agencies like ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments), with growth policies supported by UGBs. These goals and policies are embodied in both Sonoma's General Plan and its Development Code, which are documents governing land use in the city.
Concerns about the creation of affordable housing, particularly low and very low income categories, are understandable. The UGB is the most pro-affordable housing policy document in the City of Sonoma. Our promotion to renew Sonoma's UGB is tied to the mandate that it include a provision for a majority of city-centered housing focus on low and very low income affordable housing. No other General Plan land use provision mandates that if developed, parcels must be used in large part for low and very-low income housing.
It is a different policy, the City’s Growth Management Ordinance, that dictates the maximum number of housing units that can be built each year. While the number has varied slightly, overall the number of allowed housing units has been in the range of 65 per year. The actual average number of housing units built each year over the past twenty years has only been twenty-seven. The UGB has not materially affected this number and has posed no constraint on the number of units built. Market forces, such as the housing collapse of 2008, plus the loss of statewide redevelopment funds have had far greater impacts.
Yet another policy, the City’s Development Code dictates the type and density of development that can occur on any individual parcel in the City of Sonoma. Development applicants are constrained by the Development Code, but often ask for variances or exceptions that alter the nature of what is required. To the degree that the City Council and its appointed Planning Commission allows such variances and exceptions, housing policy can be altered by political decisions.
If the City of Sonoma wishes to change the amount, type and price of housing available locally, such changes are found outside the UGB. The only effect the UGB has on housing is the prevention of market-rate housing to be developed outside the UGB, in other words, it prevents sprawl while promoting affordable houinsg.
Why renew Sonoma's UGB for 20 years?
A renewal of Sonoma’s UGB for twenty years will ensure that it continues to protect vulnerable open space and agricultural lands from sprawl and development, and to ensure that Sonoma's pattern of small, incremental and sustainable development is preserved. A shorter renewal period, by comparison, would encourage heightened land speculation on parcels outside of the UGB and turn our open space into a political issue in every future election.
An analysis of developable parcels within the UGB, both vacant and underdeveloped, shows far more land available for housing than the other current City policies currently allow. Underutilized commercial parcels along our main traffic corridors can accommodate hundreds of housing units if redeveloped wisely and creatively. Large parking lots provide many acres of land now exclusively devoted to parking cars during the day. In short, the opportunities for development within the existing UGB easily span another twenty years.