“It seems to be the one issue that has galvanized people on one side or the other,” sighs Windsor Planning Commission member Laura Hall, reflecting on the ongoing debate over her town’s new General Plan. “I thought, perhaps naively, that good design could be where the two groups–the slow growth and the let’s-just-do-more-of-the-same–got together, that we could actually do some nice village neighborhoods, that we could all learn to love growth again and love our community.
“And it just didn’t happen.”
No kidding. When it came down to the final vote last month, the General Plan for the county’s newest town was adopted by the narrowest possible margin, a 3-2 vote, and the most hotly debated aspect of the plan still awaits ratification by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission next week.
That five-member body has the ultimate authority to decide whether or not Windsor will be permitted to include a 250-acre area north of Arata Lane–now part of a lush greenbelt–in the town’s Sphere of Influence, the area outside of the present-day city limits into which the town is expected to expand over the next 20 years. “I know there is going to be controversy,” says LAFCO assistant executive officer Steve Sharp, “but I haven’t seen a real measure of it yet.”
The dispute may be gathering steam as the LAFCO date draws closer. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has weighed in against the inclusion of the Arata Lane properties, and the Healdsburg city officials also have expressed concerns. “Windsor has no need to go north of Arata Lane at this time. None!” objects Christa Shaw, who heads the Santa Rosa office of Greenbelt Alliance. She argues that the road itself represents “this incredible political and psychological line that is a de facto urban growth boundary.”
“I have a question whether the citizens want this type of growth,” says Sam Salmon, one of the two Windsor Town Council members who voted against the General Plan’s adoption. “The larger the sphere, the more people we’re going to have. Anything that comes into the sphere is intended to be urbanized within the 20 years of the plan.
“We’re going to start casting shadows into areas that really should stay agriculture.”
As adopted, the Windsor General Plan anticipates that the town will nearly double from its present 18,900 residents to a population of 35,000 by 2015. But “a lot of that will depend on the growth management strategy we’re still working on,” comments Windsor Mayor Alan Rawland, a supporter of the document. He notes that the Sphere of Influence anticipated in the General Plan totals 900 acres of potential annexations, “compared to 3,000 acres in Cotati,” and says he is perplexed by the objections from Healdsburg, since more than four miles still separate the two communities.
“Even though it’s in the sphere, it has a long way to go before it can be developed,” Rawland says, but the Town Council, instead of the county, now has control over what happens on that land. “If we decide not to develop, it will serve as a nice visual boundary.”
Most of the disputed lands on the north edge of Windsor are slated to eventually hold large single-family homes, 660 of them on 267 acres for 1,881 new residents, which would make only a modest contribution to the expected population gains. “It’s really sad that a town would bring in that much land at such a low density,” laments planner Hall. “It just means that eventually we’re going to have to sprawl more and more into the greenbelt.”
“The citizens of the city have made it abundantly clear they don’t want that to happen,” states Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the local environmental advocacy group that boasts a high concentration of members in Windsor. “The survey that the town sent out indicated that the citizens want extremely slow growth. It’s pretty obvious that the growth rate that’s being allowed in the General Plan is far in excess of what anybody in the city wants, other than a few financial interests.”
Among those interests, Green charges, is Windsor Town Council member Marjorie Smith, who owns an interest in some of the land now due to be included in the new municipal Sphere of Influence. “She stands to make more than $1 million if it is approved as is,” Green says. Once city services are extended and the land is available for development, “the value of her land skyrockets.”
Yet Smith cast the deciding vote to approve the General Plan, despite her apparent personal economic interest in the decision. The matter has been referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, but that “really doesn’t affect the vote, as far as I can see,” says Salmon.
In any event, LAFCO retains the final say, not just on the Sphere of Influence, but also on the eventual annexations, whenever they may be proposed. “Whatever LAFCO does, I don’t think they will lay it to rest,” observes Mayor Rawland. “It will continue to be a sensitive issue.”
Meanwhile, opponents of a proposed huge new Wal-Mart store who say the planning document fails to consider the traffic congestion and other problems the “big box” development would cause in the area, also are planning to challenge the General Plan. Last year, Windsor officials decided to consider the Wal-Mart proposal separately from the General Plan, which envisions a light industrial use of the site at Shiloh Road and 101 being eyed by the retail giant.
From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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