Zoning for Success

North Bay counties work to balance sustainable growth with timeless quality of location. 

 
Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties share one overriding concern: how to encourage a healthy economy while maintaining the qualities of life that make each of them individually iconic both locally and throughout the country—if not the world. While each has different landscape configurations and economic focuses, they share similar challenges related to the success of their growth and status. 
 
Marin, with its breathtaking and accessible Pacific coastline and ample open space, is a haven to those seeking nature. Sonoma, with natural grandeur ranging from mountain to sea, has multiple microclimates and offers urban, agriculture and wilderness environments. Napa’s legendary valley full of grapes and its world famous wine is a haven for those who seek (and can afford) the lifestyle of wine, food, art and nature. 
 
One result of the desirability of each of these counties is the skyrocketing price of land, rents, homes and even jobs (if you consider the price of commuting). In what follows, we’ll take a look at the economic health of each county from the perspective of building and construction. 


Marin County

Marin County has long struggled with maintaining a healthy economy that supports and enriches its people and environment. Jim Cordeiro, CEO of Marin Economic Forum (a nonprofit, public-private partnership that encourages collaborative partnerships to improve Marin County’s economic vitality and enhance social equity and environmental protection), says, “[MEF] collaborated with the county of Marin to produce the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy report, which came out at the end of 2015. From that study, MEF concluded that the most sustainable industries for the continued economic vitality of Marin County is the life sciences.”
 
Under the umbrella of life sciences, he includes the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, health care providers Marin General Hospital and Kaiser Permanente and, more recently, the innovative research and pharmaceutical companies such as BioMarin, Ultragenyx and Horizon Pharma (until recently known as Raptor Pharmaceuticals). These last three companies research and produce pharmaceutical cures for specialized conditions, sometimes called “orphan diseases” because they’re so rare as to be ignored by most big pharmaceutical companies due to their limited target market. BioMarin has capitalized on this model and, as a result, it’s experienced a significant amount of growth in not only revenue but in its employment base as well. 
 
But as these companies—located in and around Novato, San Rafael and Corte Madera—approach the point where they’re ready to expand, where will they go, given Marin’s limited space? “Marin County’s commercial space is limited,” agrees Cordeiro, “and based on open space preservation in the county, it’s not likely we could sustain large manufacturing expansions of these companies. So we collaborate with Sonoma and Solano counties to keep these businesses in the North Bay. 
 
The companies can maintain their headquarters and research facilities in Marin and move manufacturing facilities into Sonoma or Solano county, therefore keeping their whole operation in the North Bay. MEF’s strategic partnership with the North Bay Life Science Alliance (NBLSA; nblsa.org), supports the life sciences in Marin and the rest of the North Bay by presenting information and statistics to prospective businesses and industries. The idea is to attract businesses that would do well in the North Bay and that would work together well to create a new brand identity. For example, life sciences (including the health care industry), combined with the gorgeous landscape, healthy lifestyle and healing retreats, such as Commonweal in West Marin, make Marin County a natural for medical tourism. 
 
“Medical tourism is a growing concept,” says Cordeiro. “Right now, there are three leaders in that area in the country—the upper East Coast around Massachusetts, San Diego and now the Bay Area, essentially focused around Stanford University and Hospital on the peninsula.”
 
Marin, with its distinct beauty and environment, welcomes visitors from all over the world. And now its established sector devoted to health and life sciences is helping it become one of the key medical tourism spots in the United States. The idea is that people will receive state-of-the-art treatment and then stay in the area afterwards to recover. Cordeiro says the concept is already in play internationally: “The annual Biotechnology International Convention took place in San Francisco this year, and countries including Germany, Canada and Mexico were promoting and showcasing their areas as hubs for medical tourism.” 
So far, the concept of a North Bay life sciences hub is working well. “It’s definitely a collaborative effort with the Marin Economic Forum, the North Bay Life Science Alliance and the county, as well as Marin General, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health. We have a solid hospital and health care industry established in Marin County,” says Cordeiro.
 
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges. Recruiting and retaining talent is something every business in Marin County struggles with, because of the cost of housing and the relatively limited amount of available jobs. “A majority of the people that actually live in Marin County don’t work in Marin County,” says Cordeiro, “and the majority of the people that work in Marin County don’t live in Marin County.” 
 
The pay rate is higher than in Napa or Sonoma counties, and jobs may be enticing, but the commute is a negative factor. Also, Cordeiro points out, if someone relocates to Marin County for a high-paying job in a life science companies, there’s little room to move if that person wants to change jobs. So, to stay flexible and preserve their options, Cordeiro says, “people may end up commuting.” He says MEF is working with organizations in Marin County as well as the county government on how to build a sustainable economy, “Here at MEF, we speak of the 4 Es—economy, equity, environment and education. Our mission is to improve the economic vitality in Marin, which includes jobs, transportation and housing for our community. We can’t provide jobs here if we’re going to make people live elsewhere—that’s not sustainable.” 
 

Sonoma County

Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a 1,000-member association dedicated to supporting the construction industry, sees a healthy turnaround for building in Sonoma County and the greater North Bay. “For a six- or seven-year period, it wasn’t just construction that was suffering, it was every aspect of our economy—but construction, I think it’s safe to say, got hit the hardest.” 
Now, the building industry is working overtime to catch up with a backlog of shelved projects. “The scramble is on to get new housing,” says Woods. By housing, he’s referring to apartments, condos, single-family homes and all kinds of dwellings. “We’re seeing thousands of homes, apartments and condos either underway or in the pipeline, from Petaluma to Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Windsor and virtually all parts of the county,” he says. 
 
That means the marketplace for people in construction has turned around. One of the reasons is that now, as property values have recovered, those who own homes have access to more equity and more borrowing power. Woods explains, “Back in the early 2000s, when your $200,000 home jumped to $500,000, a homeowner had $300,000 in equity dollars that they could borrow against for that extra game room, remodeling the kitchen or adding bedrooms.” But then real estate values plummeted and the equity disappeared—and, with it, the possibility for property improvements, additions, renovations or repairs. “Financial institutions weren’t loaning against equity until all of this settled,” says Woods. But now home values are back, equity is plentiful and contractors are all busy. 
 
That’s good news, right? “It’s good and bad,” says Woods. “I hear on a regular basis that people can’t get a contractor to build a home or do a remodel or even repairs because everybody’s so busy,” he says. Also, he adds, banks aren’t as freewheeling as they were before the crash. “There are now more equity dollars, but the banks are a little less willing to loan against equity dollars unless they’re really comfortable about the amount of equity that’s in a home.” 
 
But people want work done, and that’s good for construction business. “It’s not just the new buildings going up,” he says. “It’s a whole lot of the tenant improvements in office buildings and home improvements by owners who’re now a little more flush with equity.”
 
So things are looking brighter for those already here—but what about those interested in moving to the area? Sonoma County is a highly desirable place and, as the economy improves and more people move here for jobs, the county faces the question of how to balance sustainable growth with the environmental character that makes living here so desirable. Woods acknowledges the county can’t just pave over the land to put up more housing. “We have to look for creative new approaches if we plan to accommodate the people who are here now and want to stay as well as those who want to be here.” There’s no public will for building homes out into the countryside in Sonoma or in its equally beautiful neighboring counties.
 
One option is building on land already zoned for residential or commercial-industrial, or on what’s called “in-fill,” which, Woods explains, is land within city limits already zoned for higher densities. “Let’s maximize their use,” he says. “You’re seeing zero-lot-line homes [homes that bump right up against each other to maximize the limited space available on small urban lots] and more attention paid to apartments. What may have accommodated a couple of dozen homes in the past will now have 400 units. Every jurisdiction is trying to find ways to maximize the land it has available.”
 
When property is seen as not just a place to live, but as a savings account, where equity grows with the economy, owners want to do all they can to maintain their properties’ value. “So when a builder comes around your neighborhood and wants to build ‘affordable housing’ at half the value of your home, your immediate fear is that your property value will go down,” says John Bly, president of the Engineering Contractors Association.
 
Further, when an elected official proposes a parcel tax to fund an affordable housing bond, a homeowner whose property value will be affected thinks, ‘Why would I do that?’ It’s understandable “but, if you don’t ever have growth in your community, the cost of the services provided by that community never goes down; they always go up. That has to be put into balance. I wrap all that up into balancing community needs with the environmental needs.” It’s an on-going question for all three North Bay counties. 


Napa County

In Napa County, the commitment to maintaining the rural, agricultural character of the valley is ordained by law in the form of the Agricultural Preserve, a zoning ordinance passed in 1968 that commits agriculture as the “highest and best” use of Napa County land. Any new business or building in the county is carefully regulated. Rules are strict, compliance is enforced and, as of 2016, new rules are cropping up to reflect environmental concerns such as drought. If you want to build anything, from a garage addition to an eight-story apartment complex, your new best friend should be David Morrison, the director of planning, building and environmental services for the county of Napa.
 
Asked what advice he has for builders or homeowners with projects in mind, his overall suggestion is to look at the long-term, know exactly what you want to accomplish and consider seeking professional advice well in advance, so that when you get to the county, you’re as prepared as possible. 
 
“Spend time thinking about what it is you want to do and developing your business plan,” he says. The goal, in the interest of time, money and peace of mind, is to have your plan so perfectly worked out that you can sail through the permitting process without challenge. If a plan meets opposition, it can be expensive. “Every time you come in for a new permit, it opens up the door for new rules to be applied,” says Morrison. “So it’s in your best interest to plan ahead for your permitting needs and come in as infrequently as possible.” 
 
Enlisting experts on the front end, while expensive, can save time and money when you come in to sit down with the Planning Office. “We generally recommend people hire an engineer, contractor, surveyor or architect to draw plans up for them,” says Morrison. While some owner/builders may draw up perfectly acceptable plans on their own, many aren’t familiar with all the changing or additional requirements—energy efficiency, plumbing and septic, fire safety and in some cases, seismic safety and/or flood protection. “Each of those aspects of construction has its own unique subset of rules that has to be followed,” says Morrison. “Generally, a professional architect, engineer or contractor can help sort through the maze of sometimes conflicting requirements.” Hiring consultants isn’t required, of course. Nevertheless, he advises, while it may be more expensive in the short run, hiring the right consultant can save time and money in the long run. 
 
Morrison explains why planning can avoid the costly changes. “Maybe you have to change this load-bearing wall,” he says, “and then, if you do that, you have to go back to change a truss or the plumbing. And when you do that, you have to go back and change ADA access. One change can create a a ripple effect throughout the whole process.” Each ripple costs time and money, “so the earlier you can figure out what it is you want to do,” Morrison reiterates, “establish your vision for the entire project and then start working backwards at the more detailed level on how you’re going to make it happen – the easier our job will be, and the faster we can get you through the permit review process.”
 
Napa County’s population is changing, and with that comes more diverse opinions about what the region should look like. “I think there’s more heterogeneity or mixed culture in the community—more differences of opinion, more viewpoints,” says Morrison, “and the resulting conflicts are playing out on a project-specific level. We have had some debates in public forums about what agriculture should look like, or how much tourism should there be or even how many wineries should there be. After extensive public discussion, these concerns were translated by the Board of Supervisors into specific zoning text changes and guidelines that we’re in the process of developing.”
 
Napa continues to debate what the best balance is for our community between environmental protection, farming and smart growth and, at the same time, how to accommodate the 3.5 million people who want to visit here,” says Morrison. “That balance is not only critical to maintaining the quality of life for the people who live and work here, but is also one of the most important reasons visitors want to come here.” 
Everybody talks about balance, but what really does it look like? The Director of Planning has to have a vision. “If we got rid of all our forests and turned it all into farmland, we wouldn’t be the same Napa we are now; if we took out all our vineyards and planted oak trees, we wouldn’t be the same Napa we are now. And of course, if we paved it all over [with houses] we wouldn’t be the same. We need to ensure that agriculture, open space and urban areas continue to complement one another.
 
“As we talk about the constantly changing world in which we live, especially in California, maintaining that balance is challenging. And the fact that people have different opinions is welcome, because sometimes the prevailing wisdom isn’t necessarily correct. So it’s good to have that discussion, and it’s a healthy indicator of how much everybody cares about protecting Napa.” 
 

He agrees that the essence of Napa must be preserved, not as something under glass or in a bubble, but “in a way that nourishes Napa’s position as a world-class wine region and destination by emphasizing the valley’s distinct qualities—those that are important to the people who live and work here.” 

Ride SMART

The new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is scheduled to begin service in late spring and will cover 43 miles, from downtown San Rafael to Airport Boulevard in northern Santa Rosa. The SMART train is estimated to reduce greenhouse gases by about 31 million pounds per year. Classified as Tier 4 diesel trains, SMART trains are among the cleanest and greenest diesel trains available.

The initial portion of the new SMART rail line includes 10 stations, with stops in San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, Cotati and Santa Rosa. Two additional stations¾offering a second stop in Petaluma and a third stop in Novato¾are expected to come on line shortly after the system opens.

Once the SMART project is fully complete, there will be 16 stations along a 70-mile corridor, stretching from Cloverdale to Larkspur. Construction on the Larkspur extension begins next year and is expected to be ready for passengers in 2018. What’s more, SMART will offer a multi-use bicycle and pedestrian pathway, which allows for multi-modal trips. This means SMART riders can walk or ride their bikes part of the way, then catch a ride on SMART to their final destination. SMART trains also have room for bikes on board. For more information, go to SonomaMarinTrain.org.

Destinations

Visitors come to the North Bay for the experience, and when they eat, shop and taste wine, they contribute to the local economy, making tourism an important sector across all three counties.

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board’s Executive Director Ben Stone reports that outdoor recreation businesses are going to be increasingly important, in part because as baby boomers retire, they have more time for hiking, biking and trekking. To reach outdoor enthusiasts, the Sonoma County Outdoor Recreation Business Council has produced a brochure to promote outdoor opportunities and support related business development initiatives. The EDB has also produced a map, available on the web (sonomaedb.org/storymaps/beermap/), to showcase the county’s growing craft beverage industry and pinpoint locations where visitors can taste local beer, cider and spirits.

Outdoor activities are increasingly popular in Napa as well, as visitors add fitness to the Wine Country experience. The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition is building a trail system for walking and biking that will connect the entire valley from the Vallejo ferry bulding to Calistoga. In addition, craft brewing and distilleries are on the rise, and Stone Brewing is set to open in downtown Napa’s Borreo Building in the spring. “It will be a huge draw,” says Angela Jackson of Visit Napa Valley.

“We’re known for anything outdoors,” says Mark Essman of the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau, who points out that Marin has three national parks—Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area—and all are on the National Parks Service’s list of the top 100 parks (produced to celebrate its centennial in August). Agritourism is also a growth industry in Marin, and the bureau is a major contributor to the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail Map, which highlights the area’s world-class artisan cheesemakers.

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