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The big-ticket item in Sonoma County this election year is Measure B. Rohnert Park voters will consider a proposal to extend the life of the city's Urban Growth Boundary until 2040.
Sonoma County adopted the boundary around the city, known as a UGB, for 20 years in July 2000. The UGBs have a special place in the history of Sonoma County's environmental movement.
In the late 1990s, multiple Sonoma County cities, including Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Rohnert Park created UBGs, which set a boundary to restrict urban sprawl development. They've pretty much worked out as planned.
Under the Measure B proposal, the life of the boundary would be extended to July 2040.
The renewal comes at a time when many Sonoma County cities and the county planning agency have renewed calls for more dense developments in downtown cores near public transit.
If Rohnert Park's UGB is renewed, it will pressure the city into focusing on in-fill development —building on vacant or under-developed lots within city boundaries—rather than building outwards. Instead of fighting over one development at a time, the UGB lays down the rule all at once and, according to the measure's supporters, there's still plenty of developable land left within the UGB.
"The UGB will not prevent the development of needed housing or new businesses, but it will keep new growth contained, surrounded by open space, hillsides and agricultural land," an argument in favor of the measure signed by all five members of the Rohnert Park City Council states. "The UGB includes enough land to accommodate our carefully planned growth for at least 20 years."
Expect to see more UGB-extension ballot measures or city council decisions in the coming years. The City of Sonoma's UGB, passed by ballot measure in 2000, will expire on Dec. 31, 2020.
Four if by Fire
There are four measures to raise or extend funding mechanisms for fire districts around the county. If passed, several of the funding measures will allow several of the county's all-volunteer fire departments to hire full-time firefighters. Backers argue this will increase the level of service in those communities.
Measure C – Occidental Community Services District
This measure would raise an estimated $250,000 per year via parcel taxes on land within the Occidental Community Services District, the parent organization of the Occidental Fire Department, an all-volunteer district.
The measures' supporters argue that the extra funding "will enable 24/7 coverage, reduce response times, modernize equipment for firefighter and community safety, and help protect us from dangerous wildfires."
Measure D – Bodega Bay Fire Protection District
Measure D would extend a special tax to fund the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District's services for another four years. The tax, first approved in 2003, was renewed by ballot measure every four years thereafter.
Measure E – Gold Ridge Fire Protection District
An effort to significantly boost funding for the all-volunteer district covering portions of the rural communities outside Sebastopol, Measure E would levy a parcel tax generating an estimated $1.2 million annually.
"Our local fire department has reached a crossroads. Fire and emergency calls are increasing steadily, placing more demand on our limited services ... Existing staffing levels are not meeting best coverage practices, and we are not retaining staff due to budget shortfalls," the measure's supporters state in an argument submitted to the county.
On Sept. 9, the Gold Ridge Firefighters Association contributed $10,000 to a campaign committee supporting the measure, according to campaign finance documents filed with the county.
Measure F – Graton Fire Protection District
With funding generated by Measure F, another proposed parcel tax, the all-volunteer Graton Fire Protection District could hire career firefighters for the first time in the district's 70-year life span.
Faced with an increase in calls and volunteer firefighters struggling to live due to the lack of affordable housing, the district's current level of service "is not safe or sustainable," according to an argument submitted to the county in favor of the measure.
If passed, the parcel tax would generate an estimated $800,000 each year.
The Graton Firefighters Association contributed $10,000 to campaign committee supporting the measure.
Forestville Water District Director
Five water fanatics are running for three open seats on the district's board of directors.
Candidates Diane Hughes, chief business officer for the Forestville Unified School District, and Heather Aldridge, a forensic assistant, are outsiders. Matthew McDermott, Don Reha and Richard Benyo currently serve on the board.
Occidental Community Services District Director
Four candidates are running for three open seats on the board of directors. Carol Schmitt, who works in clean energy marketing, is the only fresh face in the race.
Candidates Ray Lunardi, Steven McNeal and Coy Brown are all incumbents.
Timber Cove County Water District Short Term Director
Warren Doyle, an incumbent, faces off against Kris Kilgore, a retired water engineer, for a seat on Timber Cove's water district's board of directors.
St. Helena, the idyllic Napa County town surrounded by vineyards and tourism-rich countryside, has a problem. The town of roughly six thousand is grappling, as many other North Bay cities are, with the task of housing a range of workers, retirees and tourists in a region of the world that is known for its ecological beauty and wine tourism.
Although the problem isn't new, it's growing worse and, to many residents, Measure F, an expensive and contentious measure included on this summer's special election, was an unfortunate set back to efforts to solve the housing problem.
In June 2018, city staff issued a 33-page report outlining the scope of the housing problem and possible means of easing it.
"The gap between housing supply and local workforce is so large now that there is no viable means for serving the entire need," an introduction to the housing report states.
Among the recommendations included in the report was enacting rent control on the 214-unit Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park. The park, which is reserved for those above 55 years-old, is a valuable source of housing for seniors, according to the city.
"Vineyard Valley provides both affordable senior housing but also opportunity for affordable homeownership and the stability that homeownership provides to a community. In order to ensure preservation of this housing type in the community its preservation would need to be further incorporated into the city's housing goals and a rent stabilization ordinance considered," the city report states. Vineyard Valley, they report, is the only mobile home park in Napa County that does not have a rent stabilization ordinance.
In November 2018, after several months of discussion, the city council narrowly approved a staff-suggested ordinance requiring Vineyard Valley units to either the annual cost of living increase or three percent of the base rent, whichever was lower.
A representative of the park's owners soon pushed back, gathering enough signatures to add the rent stabilization referendum on the June 2019 ballot. If the ballot measure —Measure F— failed to pass, the rent stabilization ordinance would not go into effect.
The Western Manufactured Homes Association, an industry group for mobile home park owners, pumped cash into the Save Our St. Helena campaign opposing Measure F, hiring law firms and political consultants for help, according to political finance documents filed with the state.
Greg Reynolds, the managing member of the parks ownership group, filed a complaint in May with the state Fair Political Practices Commission, the state body that hears election-related arguments, alleging that the Yes campaign had violated election rules by failing to post proper disclaimers on its website, fliers and promotional videos.
The complaint is currently under investigation by the FPPC's investigations unit, according to Jay Wierenga, the commission's communications manager. If the unit decides the complaint has merit, it will go to the FPPC for a final verdict.
In an argument submitted to the city, the No campaign stated that Measure F would "force all residents of Vineyard Valley into a mandatory rent control that they don't want and don't need" and said that it would cost the city money to administer.
For supporters, the measure was considered to be a crucial effort to maintain an affordable housing option for trailer park residents, especially in case the park is sold.
"Our landlord corporation has not increased rents beyond [the current 3%] cap on any current tenants. But, they have taken sizeable increases in rents when houses are sold, 10% or more," Michael Merriman, a member of Citizens for Secure Senior Housing, the group supporting Measure F, wrote in an email
Last September, Reynolds told the Napa Valley Register that the park is "not for sale," but Measure F supporters argued city action would provide them protection in case the park is sold.
In the end, the no campaign won the race by 188 votes – 594 to 882. Campaign finance statements show that the No campaign spent $86,554 on the campaign, much of it going to law firms and political consultants.
The mobile home park's backers paid $97.92 per vote, while the Yes campaign spent $22.74 per vote, for a total of $13,232.70. The high-dollar campaign left residents exhausted, but not defeated.
Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, who voted for the city council ordinance, says he was disappointed by F's failure: "It was a chance for the community to come together.".
The owners of Vineyard Valley Mobile Home Park did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although they aren't always featured heavily in modern debates, mobile home parks have long been a source of affordable housing or home ownership. In California, mobile home tenants are often protected by forms of rent stabilization.
But investment funds are increasingly viewing mobile home parks as lucrative real estate investments. For instance, Merriman says he joined the Measure F campaign in part because of news articles "illustrating the attractiveness of mobile home parks to predatory investors."
"I wanted protection from a future park sale and resultant substantial rent hikes," Merriman says.
In February, the Private Equity Stakeholder Project and two other affordable housing advocacy groups released a report outlining the rapid consolidation of mobile home park owners, as financial investment firms continue to buy up large numbers of parks across the country.
"The top 50 manufactured housing community owners own around 680,000 home sites," the report states. "With more than 150,000 home sites, private equity firms and institutional investors now control a substantial portion of manufactured home communities."
In some cases outlined in the report, a buyout can mean monumental rent hikes for mobile home renters.
Judy Pavlick, a mobile-home tenant in Sunnyvale, told the authors of the report that, after the Carlyle Group bought her park, their rent was spiked by 7 to 8 percent, instead of the more modest 3 percent increases tenants were accustomed to.
"The previous owners didn't tell us that our community was for sale. It was just dropped on us like a bomb," Pavlick says.