Novato homeowners angry as more neighborhood lots rezoned for affordable units

Brent Ainsworth

When Floyd Fulmer moved to Novato at the end of February, his purchase of a single-family home capped a long, hard journey in personal finance. At age 59 and several different careers, he had finally saved enough money to buy a house in a nice neighborhood.

He picked a house on Clemente Court in the San Marin neighborhood near a large patch of undeveloped land owned by the Novato Unified School District.

Fulmer was alarmed to learn recently that the spot could be designated by the city for low-income, high-density housing — and he wasn’t the only one. Hundreds of residents packed a recent

meeting on possible rezoning of that and properties throughout the city as local officials seek ways to meet state-imposed affordable housing quotas.

“The primary selling point for my home was this open field, which added to the character of this neighborhood,” Fulmer said. “I finally earned my way into a neighborhood like this through a lot of hard work, like a lot of other people here. With this rezoning, I’m just upset at the notion that some construction could go on here and could be incompatible with the character of the area.”

Cities have grappled with the issue for years, but nowhere in the county has the matter turned as contentious as in Novato. Many residents believe the city has developed more than its share of affordable housing already and they fear more such development would bring crime, traffic and noise to traditionally quiet, low-crime areas.

Many city officials don’t like the quotas either.

“My concern is that the state government is taking away more and more of our local land-use decisions,” Mayor Jeanne MacLeamy said. “The fact is that the state is broke, yet they still have the gall to tell us what to do with our property.”

Novato is one of six Marin municipalities updating its general plan, a blueprint for what residents and city officials want the city to look like in the next decade.

Meetings have been held for more than a year on the Novato update that will focus on 2014-19. An update on the housing element must be included by state law to show that efforts will be made to accommodate people with annual incomes below the Marin County median. In Marin, a household income for a family of four below $90,500 is considered low income.

If it plays by the rules, Novato must commit to building 446 units of low-income housing by the end of 2014. It has already been credited with 133 units since the last housing element update was submitted, leaving a balance of 313 units.

Where those remaining units will be built is the topic of much vein-popping discussion.

MacLeamy cited the recent Wall Street meltdown as evidence that people should live within their means.

Floyd Fulmer and his niece Julie McCracken walks through a 21-acre parcel of land adjoining their house on Clemente Court in Novato. The parcel may be rezoned which would allow the construction of more houses than they want to see.
think people should be able to live in the housing they can afford,” she said. “If they need to rent for a while, so be it. We found through this financial crisis that an awful lot of people should have never bought anything in the first place. They couldn’t handle a mortgage.”
Exactly, some housing proponents say: all the more reason for affordable-housing complexes.

‘Novato has done its share’

Councilwoman Carole Dillon-Knutson represents Marin on the Association of Bay Area Governments board and is the vice president of the body’s legislative and government organizing committee. It is ABAG that determines how many units of low-income housing each city must zone for it its general plan updates every five years.

“I feel that for Novato, the numbers will be very difficult for us to accomplish,” she said. “I am in favor of affordable housing, but in fact Novato has built more affordable housing than the rest of Marin put together. Novato did that because we felt affordable housing was important to the city to have, and I believe we have done a really good job on that. Yet there is a penalty if we don’t achieve those (ABAG) numbers.”

Most often the penalty is levied through a loss of street maintenance dollars from Sacramento.

“We really need to understand what happens to us if we don’t conform,” MacLeamy said. “The state might get around to penalizing you, but the affordable housing advocates can sue you. If you don’t have your general plan approved, you won’t be allowed to proceed with other developments. They’ll do something very punitive.”

Land on the potential list of rezoned properties in Novato includes the 21.6-acre site on San Andreas Drive owned by the school district near Fulmer’s house, the Novato Square shopping center, several churches and businesses along Novato Boulevard and South Novato Boulevard and a few private properties.

An overflow crowd jammed into Novato City Hall on June 7 for a Planning Commission meeting to go over the list. Dozens of people were forced to watch the proceedings from the hall’s foyer on television and others watched from outside and listened through open windows. A planned presentation by city senior planner Elizabeth Dunn was cut short to provide more time for public comment.

“It was a very impressive audience and it made a huge impression,” said Commissioner Peter Tiernan. “We were chastised.

“It was a tsunami.”

City administrators plan to hold a workshop in August to address the issue. It might have to be held at a local high school based on the response of the June 7 meeting, Tiernan said. After that, environmental studies would have to be conducted on potential low-income housing properties and the list would have to be bounced off the general plan update committee, the Planning Commission and the City Council before anything is finalized.

Then again, nothing would get developed unless a developer is waiting with detailed plans and fistfuls of cash. Jan La Torre-Derby, superintendent of the Novato Unified School District, said there are no plans for the San Andreas site even though many ideas have been offered through the years.

Housing advocates

The Greenbelt Alliance advocates for affordable housing near transit centers and also works to preserve open space. Greenbelt Alliance field representative Whitney Merchant said her group would like to see reputable nonprofit developers — those with a lot of experience screening applicants for low-income units — be involved in any high-density projects in Novato.

“We feel really confident that if these kind of developers build affordable housing that fits within the scale and blends in with the neighborhood, you get good tenants who are honest hard-working people,” she said. “The San Andreas site is interesting because the school district gets to decide what gets built there. They could build housing that is restricted to school district employees. That would help attract teachers who can live close to their jobs.”

Representatives of the Novato Housing Coalition, which seeks more affordable housing, cite several examples of high-density, low-income complexes that improved the quality of life for their residents and had no adverse effect on neighborhoods.

Coalition chairwoman Katie Crecelius said Mackey Terrace in Ignacio, the Margaret Duncan Greene apartments on Olive Avenue and rentals in the Creekside area of Hamilton can all be considered success stories in affordable housing. The three Nova-Ro complexes and the planned Eden Housing condos on Diablo Avenue are examples of low-income housing for seniors.

“I would invite anyone concerned to go on a tour of developments that have been around for several years and just take a look,” Crecelius said. “There are several in Novato that are really nice.”

Back on Clemente Court, Fulmer said local and state government entities need to hear out the citizens before decisions are made. He said he has no problem with affordable housing but is not an advocate of high-density housing in areas where it doesn’t fit in.

“The situation really belongs to the people who have a vested interest in their neighborhood, so that’s who the government should be listening to right now.”

MacLeamy said weighing opinions is critical, and ultimately the decisions will come before the City Council for final approval.

“They’re not going to make everybody happy, but everyone will feel they’ve been heard,” she said.

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