Sonoma County loosens restrictions on new homes after devastating fires

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Sonoma County supervisors have signed off on a wide-ranging suite of policy changes intended to encourage construction of more new homes, loosening restrictions on granny units and lowering other development hurdles seven months after nearly 5,300 residences were lost here in last year's devastating wildfires.

Under the revised rules, homeowners in unincorporated areas could build a larger granny unit or fit one on a smaller property than the county allowed before, depending on the size of the site as well as its water and sanitation systems. County permitting officials will be able to sanction second units on even smaller lots through a separate process.

And homeowners looking to build more compact granny units will have to pay less in fees, part of an effort from the Board of Supervisors to promote what the county sees as one of its best options to expand housing in rural areas.

The new policy alone isn't likely to trigger a large influx of housing in unincorporated neighborhoods, county leaders admitted. But it was the first in a series of housing initiatives expected to be brought forward in the coming months by county planning staff.

"How do we put the pedal to the metal and not just allow this, but encourage it?" said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, referring to the overall housing package. "It seems like passing this sort of code and saying you can do it is one thing, but actually getting those projects built out is another."

Sonoma County needed seven years, starting in to 2011, to build almost the number of homes wiped off the map by the fires in a single day. Since then, experts and local officials have estimated that the gap between what exists now — about 203,000 homes — and what's needed to keep the economy growing and house a wide range of workers and families could be as high as 30,000 units.

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors floated that total as a tentative five-year building target, ordering up a host of ways to overhaul its regulation of home development.

On Tuesday, as another part of that move, supervisors expanded the amount of residential space allowed in mixed-use developments, eased the process for establishing single-room occupancy facilities and delayed the collection of affordable housing fees to take financial pressure off developers.

Supervisors raised the maximum size of a granny unit allowed by the county to 1,200 square feet — up from 1,000 square feet — for properties of at least 2 acres that are connected to well and septic systems. The same size cap applies to properties of at least 5,000 square feet that are served by public sewers.

Rural, septic-connected properties as small as 1 acre can still get a permit for a one-bedroom granny unit, depending on their water setup and as long as the additional unit is no larger than 640 square feet.

After Supervisor Shirlee Zane pressed to loosen the property size requirements even more, Tennis Wick, the county's planning director, agreed to consider granny units on properties smaller than 1 acre on a case-by-case basis through a separate permitting process.

"Let's allow for the maximum amount of flexibility," Zane said. "I want people to be able to live here again and rebuild, and I just think that we need to be able to find incentives."

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