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The Press Democrat

Editorial: Petaluma’s slow growth rate

As the November election draws near, it’s inevitable that new housing and commercial development will once again be a hot topic of debate in the Petaluma City Council and mayoral races.

Despite a current residential growth rate that, mostly due to the economic recession, is almost zero, the recent closure on a nearly seven-year battle over a Target-centered shopping center is sure to keep the pot boiling on the matter of whether Petaluma is being overrun by developers or not doing enough to provide jobs and new businesses to generate badly needed tax revenues.

But on the matter of new residential development, the last decade paints a very clear picture of consistently slow growth, no matter who was in office.

It was 38 years ago that Petaluma set the nationwide legal standard for residential growth control. Following a decade of runaway growth in which the city’s population had nearly doubled, voters adopted a firm cap limiting home building to no more than 500 units in any given year which, in 1972, was about half the number of homes built in Petaluma the previous year. Development interests promptly filed suit against the city and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the city’s constitutional right to limit the rate of new development.

Nearly four decades later, Petaluma’s reputation for carefully managed growth remains firmly intact. In this week’s story by reporter Philip Riley examining the recent pace of residential development in Petaluma, it was revealed that far from the 500-unit limit adopted in 1972, Petaluma added an average of just 182 housing units per year (combined single-family and multi-family units) for the last nine years, yielding an average annual increase of well under one percent.

In 2006, when political activists were accusing Petaluma’s City Council of being too “pro-growth,” the city was ranked No. 1 among 101 cities in the entire Bay Area for effectively implementing “smart growth” policies and controlling urban sprawl. The Greenbelt Alliance lauded Petaluma for its voter-approved urban growth boundary and the Central Petaluma Specific Plan that gave rise to mixed-use redevelopment downtown.

For the last decade, Petaluma has consistently been well ahead of most other communities in its development of affordable housing, especially for seniors and low-income families.

And in an innovative program seen in few other communities and backed by the local chamber of commerce, new commercial development in Petaluma must pay a “linkage fee” to help fund development of workforce housing so that employees are not forced to drive in from Solano or Lake counties to come to work each day.

And in 2008, the city imposed some of the highest development impact fees in the nation, ensuring that all new development pays its fair share of the impacts on a wide range of city services from police and fire protection to city parks.

Despite all this, whatever limited development is proposed seems destined to upset anyone living nearby, since that’s the nature of the “not in my backyard” mentality so prevalent today. Some people would prefer to see no new building at all; from their perspective even well-planned, totally green-designed infill development is abhorrent. Example: When a dentist was approved to build a new office on property zoned for exactly such a use, neighbors filed suit. And although a judge later ruled that the city’s approval of the project was perfectly legal and consistent with all existing zoning codes, the neighbors have appealed the ruling while the dentist shells out hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing legal fees.

And so it goes.

Despite the all-too-frequent hyperbole to the contrary, there’s no merit to the argument that Petaluma has experienced anything close to runaway growth over the last 10 years, or that any past or current council members wanted to pave everything in sight. Such accusations do, however, make for wildly incendiary campaign fodder during City Council elections, and this election should be no different in that regard.

What is different this year, however, is that most voters are far less concerned about the myth of runaway growth and more concerned about the very real need to create new jobs.



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