By Shepherd Bliss
A town is saved . . . by the woods and swamp that surround it," Thoreau declared from the banks of Walden Pond. The "swamp" that protects Sebastopol is the Laguna de Santa Rosa. But the Laguna and the small town that borders it face the biggest development in their recent history.
The Schellinger Brothers construction company wants to build 177 new homes in the Laguna uplands at the city's southern edge on a 21-acre site off Highway 116. The proposed development includes 40 units of affordable housing, plus retail, office, and commercial space.
Many locals, especially Laguna lovers, are not happy with the proposed Laguna Vista. They contend that Sebastopol will not gain much and will lose a lot, including its small-town character. Some do not want any development in the ecologically sensitive area, whereas others advocate conditions and mitigations that would lessen the project's negative impacts.
A big fight looms. The developer stands to gain millions of dollars. Affordable-housing advocates support the project because it includes affordable housing. Others appreciate the project's attempts at "smart growth"--including high-density, residential/commercial mixed-use units and an energy-efficient design. The developer has been open to modifications and has included the community in meetings to improve the project.
In the middle of the big fight are five Sebastopol City Council members. They must decide on the project soon before the coming November elections, in which two plan to run for re-election.
Wetlands such as Laguna de Santa Rosa provide many critical ecological functions, like filtering out toxins from water and absorbing storm runoff. Wetlands are sponges that clean. They also provide wildlife habitat and contain flooding. Over 90 percent of California's wetlands have been destroyed, which contributes to the worsening of water quality. Each winter the Laguna absorbs tons of water and keeps it from flowing into Sebastopol. The development would sit directly on the edge of the laguna, threatening the quality and quantity of water in the area.
A diverse group of neighbors, local business owners, environmentalists, childcare advocates, and others oppose the project. They have gathered information from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over wetlands), and many others to build a campaign against the project.
Two dozen people met on two July afternoons at the home of Bob Evans off Fircrest Avenue, in view of the proposed development. Evans, president of the prestigious Laguna Foundation, observed, "This project would put three-story structures at the extremity of our community, rather than in the core." He contends that Laguna Vista would be out of character with the neighborhood, which is now open space; it would become urbanized. He pointed to two examples of sites in Sebastopol that would be more fitting for such a development: the lumber yard downtown, and the old tire place on Gravenstein Highway North.
A "Dear Neighbor" letter was recently hand-delivered to my small farm about two miles south of the building site. Written by Holy Downing, it notes that "the project would dramatically increase traffic [by] an estimated 1,700 new car trips daily on Highway 116, which is already overcrowded and accident prone." The project may eventually cause the two lane rural highway to be widened. About a thousand signatures have already been gathered on a petition, available at Box Office Video in downtown Sebastopol, opposing the project on the basis of traffic congestion.
Whereas many community arguments against the project have been made, there is one main argument in favor of it: advocates note that it would provide desperately needed affordable housing. Some speak of it as "smart development" and an "eco-village."
An environmental impact report has been prepared for the project, as required by state law, and is available at the Sebastopol Planning Department. It notes that "construction of the proposed project could result in a potentially significant health hazard as a result of potential but unknown contaminated soils and groundwater." The project is close to the Elphick Road site where the Water Quality Control Board has already discovered contaminated wells.
Numerous letters from citizens also appear in the environmental impact report appendix. One neighbor of the project, Betty Stanfield of Fircrest Avenue, writes, "I am amazed that anyone would even consider adding a huge development (almost a small town) to the Gravenstein Highway crush!" Laguna Vista's projected 500 residents would comprise more people than various small, unincorporated West County towns, including Occidental, Bodega, Bloomfield, Monte Rio, Rio Nido, and Freestone.
Among the local business owners opposing Laguna Vista is Dian Hudelson, co-owner with her husband of Sprint Copy in Sebastopol. "The 500 new residents might help our business, but it is not worth the loss of the laguna. We live on Elphick and love to walk down into the open space, as do our neighbors. It breaks my heart to consider that we could lose the Laguna, which should be our priority."
To get a sense of the contested ground, I meandered over to the attractive site, on the eastern side of Highway 116. It is easily accessible by the Fircrest Mobile Home Park, over which the development would tower, and the Cricket House childcare center, which would be demolished. It is easy to see why someone would want to build their dream home and live on this land. It is now beautiful open space with all kinds of birds, including long-necked egrets preening themselves and dancing about magically, and screeching hawks playing in the blue sky above.
One's eyes rest gently on nearby tall, spreading oaks and then wonder off to misty mountains farther away. Though not very visible by day, signs of wildlife are noticeable: deer, raccoon, fox, coyote, and badgers had left their traces. Laguna Foundation's Evans says that in recent months "a mountain lion has been confirmed in the area. We see all kinds of mammals, including mink, muskrats, and freshwater otters." Quail live in the bushes. Dogs and other human pets would endanger such wildlife.
Though I walked through the mobile-home community of over 100 residents at a busy time of day, it was extremely quiet and I saw only one person. Birds were more visible and louder than the traffic. Wes Hunter, a mobile-home resident, spoke for the elderly, some in their 90s, who live there and do not want their quietness disturbed, "We came here to get away from apartment life. Imagine all the cars and the problems they would bring. Where would they all park?"
Former Planning Commissioner Helen Shane co-authored a letter about the project advocating additional conditions. She contends that the new homes would "be bought by high-paid people who now live somewhere else." Most of the houses could only be affordable to people who would use Sebastopol as a "bedroom community" from which to commute to Santa Rosa or farther south for work.
Whether one supports or opposes this project, it is clear that it will dramatically change the small-town character of a growing Sebastopol and the rural area to its south. Thoreau would feel less welcome here after such a development. He wrote, "When I would re-create myself, I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature." The Laguna still has some of nature's strength and remains a "sacred place," at least for now.
The first City Council public hearing on Laguna Vista is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 6, at 7pm, at the Sebastopol Veterans Memorial Hall, 282 High St. The project's impact would reach beyond Sebastopol, so all are welcome to the meeting.
From the August 1-7, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.