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Trailer Park Blues

Santa Rosa mobile park faces uncertain future

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Nearly two years after the North Bay fires burned more than half the homes in Santa Rosa's Journey's End mobile home park, the Santa Rosa City Council is considering legislation to speed the closure process for the park, opening the possibility for a new housing project on the property.

Although Journey's End is located just across Highway 101 from Coffey Park (the single-family home neighborhood that the fires also seriously damaged), the two neighborhoods are at very different points in their recovery. Coffey Park is well on the way to being rebuilt, but Journey's End still looks much as it did after the fires. The delayed rebuilding process has, in part, to do with the park's zoning and state rules governing mobile homes, long a form of affordable housing in a state with sky-high housing prices.

Unlike single and multi-family housing developments, the California Department of Housing and Community Development regulates mobile home parks and the city requires park owners to file a special report in order to close the park

However, the city of Santa Rosa needs to update its rules for park closures with new regulations for parks damaged in natural disasters, says David Guhin, Santa Rosa's planning and economic development director. Once Journey's End is formally closed, the property will be one step closer to a new beginning.

Affordable housing developer Burbank Housing floated the idea of building housing on the land and giving preference to the former Journey's End residents.

In February, Kaiser Permanente chipped in $1.6 million to cover planning and design costs for the future development.

Representatives from Burbank told the North Bay Business Journal the same month that it expected the project to take five years and $85 million to complete. The article did not specify how many units the project might include; however, it does state that Burbank "has control" over the property.

Since then, Burbank has remained quiet about its plans. The developer has not applied for planning permits at Journey's End—at this point that would be a premature step since the land is still zoned for a mobile home park, not conventional housing—and did not respond to the Bohemian's request for comment in time for the paper's deadline this week.

On Sept. 30, the Press Democrat reported that Burbank would "take the lead" on the closure of Journey's End. In order to build a multi-family housing development, Burbank will have to apply to change the zoning of the property. The property is currently zoned as a mobile park. The property owner did not respond to a request for comment.

The city is taking the project one step at a time, with no specific plans about the future use of the land, according to Guhin. That said, the destruction of more than one-hundred homes at Journey's End was a big loss for the city's affordable housing stock. Guhin calls mobile homes a "critical affordable housing source" for the city.

"Replacing those units with mobile homes or another form of affordable housing will be paramount," Guhin says.

Emergency Ordinance

The ordinance under consideration at the council's Oct. 1 meeting would alter a 1996 city code requiring mobile home parks to file a report outlining the reasons for and possible effects of their closing.

The current code does not describe the process of closing a park due to damage caused by a disaster, such as a catastrophic fire. In this case, the 2017 fires.

The proposed amendment is part of Santa Rosa's new Resilient City Combining District, a special zoning district created after the fires to help spur rebuilding in fire-affected areas.

Although three Santa Rosa mobile home parks were partially damaged in the fires, the ordinance only applies to parks that lost more than 50 percent destroyed. Currently, Journey's End—which lost 116 of 160 homes during the fires—would be the only park affected by the policy change.

The proposed ordinance makes several other changes to the standard closure report procedure aimed at speeding up the Journey's End closure process. Under the proposed ordinance, a public outreach period will be reduced from 30 to 15 days; the applicant alone will decide on a consultant to prepare a closure report, instead of coming to an agreement with a representative of park residents; and the final decision will go directly to the City Council rather than the Planning Commission.

The closure process for Journey's End is further complicated because no one currently resides on the property because the California Department of Housing and Community Development, the agency that regulates mobile home parks, deemed the heavily damaged park unlivable, even for those residents whose homes did not burn down.

Mobile and Affordable

Although there are just over one hundred licensed mobile home parks in Sonoma County, according to data from the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, this form of housing rarely make it into modern debates over the North Bay's affordable housing crisis.

Unlike affordable housing developments, which are generally financed by vouchers and incentives from state and federal agencies, mobile homes are relatively cheap to buy or rent and, under state law, often protected by a form of rent control.

In Santa Rosa, rent increases on mobile homes are tied to the cost of living increase, capped at 6 percent annually.

However, in an age where glossy lifestyle magazines for millennials feature tiny homes and manicured micro-houses, mobile homes suffer from a lack of branding. Unlike their tiny-home cousins, which have not found favor among local leaders in Santa Rosa as a long-term solution to the regional housing crisis, mobile homes are often associated with retirees on a low income, not a daring lifestyle choice.

Still, for a generation that may be moving away from homeownership, mobile homes have long been a practical housing solution for hundreds of people in Sonoma County.

Although Point Reyes Station catches more than a few sun rays on a recent late-summer day, the northern tip of the Seashore, which is administered by the National Park Service, gets the Pacific Ocean's full fog-machine treatment.

At historic Pierce Point Ranch, a windbreak of gnarled trees just beyond the parking lot is hardly visible. Yet the bugling of unseen male tule elk is as clear as a bell. The term, "bugling," with its upbeat, brass instrument connotations, doesn't do justice to this haunting screech that's about as wild as it gets, just an hour north of the Golden Gate.

The rut, when male elk (called bulls) compete for influence with groups of females (cows), takes place from August to October, and it's one of the Seashore's many natural resource features—along with whale and elephant seal viewing—that draw up to 2.4 million visitors each year.

There are plenty of other bulls and cows to see here, too.

More than 5,700 dairy cows and cattle graze on Seashore land leased to dairy and beef operations. But considering their smaller number, about 750 animals in free-ranging herds and fenced in at Pierce Point, the tule elk surely rank highly among visitors.

"It's not a popularity contest," says Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator for the Seashore, about the latest invitation for public comments on the Seashore's plans to manage ranches and elk in the future. The comment period for the General Management Plan Amendment Draft Environmental Impact Statement closed on Sept. 23.

"One really important thing for people to realize," Gunn clarifies, "...it's not a vote. And we try to make that clear to people. What we're looking for is substantive information to inform the process."

Previously, the Park sought to implement an updated Ranch Management Plan (RMP), consulting the public in a series of workshops and comment periods. But a coalition of environmental groups, frustrated that the process did not include an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), sued and halted it.

"Every park does it that way when they make a big management decision," says Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "They do that through an environmental review."

The park was trying to skip that step, according to Miller, who traces his activism in the park to family hiking trips when the Seashore opened in the 1960s. "When the park service tried to float the ranch plan, killing the elk was the last straw."

The Amendment Draft now includes a more specific plan, "Alternative B," to lethally remove elk from a contentious herd that shares pasture with cows, while extending ranch leases to 20-year terms. This is the NPS's "preferred alternative."

The statement does mention five more alternatives, from "no action" to "cessation of ranching operations."

"It wasn't about kicking ranchers out, which is what ranchers fall back on when anyone asks questions," says Susan Ives, whose organization, Restore Point Reyes Seashore, encourages public commentary on the plan.

"It's how to restore the native prairie—let's try to bring back some of these native plants that are on the brink," says Ives, who does not view the preferred alternative as an acceptable compromise. "There really weren't a lot of alternatives that we could support."

The Seashore will not release the public comments for several months, according to Gunn. Already, elk advocates are criticizing the process.

"I have helped to collect hundreds of comments from other citizens who also want the park to choose wildlife protection and restoration and to phase out ranching," forELK founder Diana Oppenheim writes in a letter to park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon.

Melanie Gunn and the NPS refuse to accept those comments, stating a policy of not accepting bulk comments. "We can't accept comments that have been submitted on behalf of others," Gunn states. "So, we let that individual know, as soon as we got them, that she could take them back and ask individuals to send them."

A preview of comments provided to the Pacific Sun highlight the disconnect between the Park Service mission, the environmental findings of the EIS and the preferred alternative. Among writers offering substantive perspectives, Ken Brower, who watched as a "fly on the wall" as his father, David Brower, worked with ranchers and politicians to establish the park, writes, "It is a historical falsehood—despite the widespread myth otherwise—that the park's founders ever intended that ranching be permanent."

Judd A. Howell, former ecologist and research scientist at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, questions why the Seashore's 5,700 cattle units cannot tolerate 124 elk among them. "The notion that elk are a 'problem' is obviously misguided, since elk coexist with cattle on BLM and Forest Service grazing lands throughout the western U.S.," he says.

It remains to be seen how many of the 7,000-plus comments received weigh in for or against the preferred alternative. Some may be classified as opinion only, and will not be incorporated at all, says Gunn. But they won't be lost in the fog. "We provide a response to those comments."

—James Knight

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