Tuesday, August 7, 2007

07.19.2007 RRROC Meeting (Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee)

Brief Summary: The Russian River Parks & Recreation Committee requests additional $30K for resurfacing tennis courts; RRROC quibbles with County over Vehicle Abatement contract; Community Development Commission (CDC) & Luther Burbank receive $890K loan towards $2M land acquisition for affordable housing project on 5th & Mill Streets ... after John Uniack pulls a Michael Moore & the fur starts flying (mrrreeeow!).

Please Note: Elise Roberts of the Russian River Monthly & Johanna Lynch of the Russian River Times have already provided excellent coverage of what transpired at the most recent Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee (RRROC) meeting held on July 19th at 7pm at the Guerneville Veterans Hall on Thursday, July 19th. But I hereby throw in my two cents anyway, since professional decorum & limited print space do not allow for inclusion of the juicy details.

I also must mention that the folks who serve on RRROC are total hardcore TROOPERS with massive amounts of stamina. I had to leave at 11:00pm due to exhaustion & the need to do some late-night grocery shopping so my family won't starve to death. I drove by at midnight, after loading my car up with a month's worth of groceries, & the meeting was STILL going strong!

So now ... here's my summary of (hopefully) most of the meeting.

Public Comments:
Jynx Lopez (Director of the Monte Rio Preschool) spoke in support of the current rehabilitation of Russian River Childcare Services' building & the Russian River Parks & Recreation Committee requested an additional $30K for the tennis court resurfacing project (the tennis courts are popular & widely used by local residents, their condition is worse than originally estimated, & this will probably go through).

Vehicle Abatement:
Discussion then moved on to the ongoing Vehicle Abatement program, which was created to facilitate the removal of old, unsightly, & possibly environmentally-hazardous abandoned cars, trucks & campers. The County has renewed its contract with a local firm, but RRROC member John Uniack objects to the renewal of the current contract on the grounds that (a) the County should not have done this without first consulting RRROC; and (b) the job does not appear to be getting done (perhaps this is due to the loss of the retired local sheriff who was coordinating the removal of abandoned vehicles with various agencies).

Kathleen Kane, Executive Director of the County Development Commission, explained that the time-line for vehicle abatement has been pushed up, but that the program is still running. Mr. Uniack & Ms. Kane haggled back & forth over the finer points of the program until RRROC Chair Dan Fein intervened to state that the RRROC is an advisory committee & hence does not work out the contracts. Mr. Uniack replied, "Let me remind you of the name of our committee," strongly implying that providing OVERSIGHT (i.e. Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee) is the most important part of RRROC's mandate. RRROC member Catherine Young supported Mr. Uniack in his view of the importance of the RRROC's role as watch-dog, but stopped short of demanding a review or revocation of the contract, & all of the other members appeared to support the current contract. Hence the recently renewed Vehicle Abatement contract stands.

Subcomittee Reports:
  • Design Guidelines: Still waiting for completion of massively huge document.
  • Affordable Housing: Tom Lynch reports that they're exploring opportunities & are working with Burbank Housing & Habitat for Humanity.
  • Elections: John Uniack reports that the process has begun, forms are available & that current RRROC members who do not wish to serve again should announce their intentions so as not to discourage newcomers from running. Folks who are interested in running for an RRROC position can obtain more information & the appropriate forms from the RRROC Web site.
  • Strategic Plan: Also still waiting for completion of massively huge document.
  • Public Restrooms: John DeSalvio is still obliged to report ... Nada. Safeway's Powers-That-Be declined to sell us a portion of their parking lot back in March; & CalTrans (which owns the other two potential sites) keeps giving him the run-around. I, personally, nominate Mr. DeSalvio for sainthood for such long-suffering devotion in service to this urgently required, but seemingly hopeless task.

    PUBLIC COMMENT: An articulate & thoughtful local business owner (whose name, alas, I did not catch) said that it's "unhealthy" for a tourist community like ours to not have public toilets. It "makes us look bad, unwelcoming." I totally agree. He also related two interesting anecdotes concerning the importance of a community like ours providing a positive impression to visitors: (1) While traveling in Canada, he parked his car while attempting to reserve a room in a pricey resort. Alas, he abruptly had to cancel this reservation as he observed an officer administering a hefty parking ticket which basically wiped out his fancy hotel budget. The signs did not make it clear to him (as a foreign visitor) that he was parking illegally. Hence, all parties lost out: He drove away with a bad impression of this community & the resort did not receive his business. (2) While walking around downtown Guerneville, he overheard a conversation held by "two ladies shopping" who apparently sounded rather vexed. They had asked a local business if they could use the restroom & were directed to the one "at the coffee shop."

    In my view, this gentleman is DEAD-ON RIGHT!!! For now, the businesses at Cinnabar Plaza (Coffee Bazaar, Cinnabar Laundromat, & Twice Told Books) & Andorno's Pizzeria on the Eastern end of Main Street, Pat's Diner on the middle of Main Street, & Flavors Unlimited on the Western end of Main Street are stuck as the de-facto providers of clean, reliable public restroom facilities -- most likely because places that serve food are required to provide accessible restrooms which meet legal safety requirements.

    Other local businesses cannot afford to be as hospitable due to awkward & un-insurable employee restroom locations (i.e. in basements & stockrooms which require navigating maze-like passageways through narrow, rickety stairs & teetering piles of sales inventory). Yet, I have discovered that even these merchants will risk potential lawsuits &/or citations to accommodate "emergencies" -- like little kids who REALLY HAVE TO GO RIGHT NOW! The lack of public restrooms in downtown Guerneville is utterly vile, as well as truly & dreadfully UNFAIR to just about EVERYONE ... including tourists, local business owners, & the folks who live around here.

    What can we do? Can't we be more creative? Surely, potential sites for constructing a public restroom must exist beyond the Safeway parking lot & Cal Trans' Park & Ride lot. We need to be more proactive, in terms of purchasing real estate. During the past two years, there was a land parcel for sale on Drake Road by the bridge; a home for sale on Church Street between Guerneville Plaza & the Masonic Lodge; & that total wreck of a house on Armstrong Woods Road between Cinnabar Plaza (the bookstore/coffee shop/laundromat complex) & the library. Alas, we missed out on these opportunities. Perhaps, because they're on the Eastern side of town (where a restroom now exists at the River Park), & we REALLY need a facility on the Western side of town. Yet, a cottage came up for sale on the Western end of Church Street, across the street from the Guerneville Veteran's Hall, & we made no effort whatsoever to acquire it.

    We need to get more creative. This means keeping an eye on land parcels on the Western end of town which come up for sale, & also the possibility of persuading local property owners & business owners in the desired areas of town to allow us to construct facilities & pay them handsomely for the privilege, if this is required. Surely, local businesses & property owners will cooperate & even prove eager to help if they believe that their businesses & the community at large will benefit, & if they trust us to provide the financial & logistical support required. Without a huge mobilization of public support & dollars, we cannot possibly expect property owners & struggling businesses to stick their necks out.

    Quite frankly, I'm amazed that these people freely & kindly give as much as they do.

  • Infrastructure: George Zastrow recommends funding for Sweetwater Springs' proposal, & also reported that they are considering setting aside RRROC funds to help individual property owners deal with the "Street Tree" problem (portions of downtown Guerneville sidewalks are buckling & causing potential hazards due to overgrown tree roots).

    Personally, I think this is would be an excellent solution, because: (a) Pedestrian traffic downtown is vital to downtown businesses & to our local economy & the tree roots are obstructing it; (b) Property owners should be held responsible for maintenance of their properties; & yet, (c) Removing & replanting trees or constructing ramps around the roots would be a burdensome -- maybe impossible -- expense for storefront owners without our assistance. Especially since the current property owners probably were not responsible for planting the original trees. I just hope that the funding comes with strings attached -- i.e. that any ramps or work-arounds can accommodate folks with wheel chairs, canes, & strollers, & that any trees removed must be replaced with new trees which would thrive in our little micro-climate & have roots which tend to spread downwards rather than outwards (perhaps a local arborist could be hired as a consultant in order to create a list of trees & instructions for planting & care of these trees).

  • Communications Outreach: Kathleen Kane advocated the need for a communications alliance with a Web site for local businesses, non-profits, County agencies & other local organizations to develop a centralized repository for news, information, events, etc. She pointed out that achieving a "Self-Reliant Community" is one of the key goals stated in the preliminary draft Strategic Planning document (which was created with input from the public via extensive community focus groups). We need media venues for outreach & information sharing which are accessible to everyone in the community, including a Web site (the County Redevelopment Commission is in the process of revamping its Web site to make information easier to find -- check out the Russian River Redevelopment Oversight Committee home page); radio broadcasts (RRROC Chairman Dan Fein often broadcasts on our local radio station, 90.3 KGGV FM); & more integration with local newspapers & other print media.

    PUBLIC COMMENTS: Rich Carmichael supported this, saying if "we're gonna talk about Sweetwater [etc.] ... we need to get everyone on the same page ... we need something."

  • Guerneville River Park: Tom Lynch reported that he is "looking forward" to new plans for the stage & hopes that this ad-hoc subcommittee will be turned into a permanent subcommittee.

    PUBLIC COMMENTS: Head of the Interfaith Coalition (alas, didn't catch her name) pointed out that she was in town with her paraplegic son & he couldn't find a bathroom. Elisabeth Parker ranted about needing a bathroom in our existing recreation facility (the playground, tennis courts & basketball court at Drake Park) as well as a safe pedestrian walkway connecting it to the new River Park. "What needs to happen?" Chairman Fein replied that ideas come from the public & that she can submit a proposal. Mr. DeSalvio explained that adequate park maintenance for the Russian River would require a $10-$15 per year parcel tax. Lloyd Guccione "urges caution in that approach" because he doesn't want another mindless property tax assessment.
Old Business:
  • Allow public (non-RRROC) membership on Communications & Outreach Subcommittee: Chairman Fein asks how many members. Mr. Uniack & Kathleen Kane recommend 9 members.

    PUBLIC COMMENTS: Ms. Parker & Mr. Carmichael say they want to help, a local mom (Yun Lee? I don't know how to spell it) urges us to reach out to middle-schoolers "they're our future," & Mr. Guccione (in support of youth) describes a beautiful European city in a major capitol which has skateboard parks right in the center of town with no ill effects. RRROC members banter back & forth about having youth representatives involved in redevelopment processes.

    MOTION TO AUTHORIZE 9 COMMITTEE MEMBERS (INCLUDING PUBLIC) PASSES UNANIMOUSLY. The subcommittee will accept applications for membership until positions are filled. The application forms are available online at the RRROC site. They wanted the deadline to be August 23rd, but cannot appoint educator & youth representatives until school starts (on August 27th).

  • Affordable Housing at Mill & 5th (With Luther Burbank Housing & Community Housing Development Corporation): Burbank & CHDC request a loan for $2 million for the acquisition of land on Mill & 5th Streets (the current location of Noonan's Garage). Representatives for this presentation were Pascal Sisich & John Lowry from Burbank, & Margo Burke from CHDC. Since the last meeting, they've generated documents to address issues concerning planning, land use, etc. PLEASE NOTE: I offer my special thanks to Elise Roberts from the Russian River Monthly for providing invaluable help in terms of sorting out who the heck all these people are. Plus for all the witty & entertaining commentary between her & Zelda Michaels. I adore these two women & always try to sit near them, even if it means sitting cross-legged on the floor, because without them, I wouldn't know what's going on & probably wouldn't even care because I would fall asleep.

    John Lowry, Executive Director of Luther Burbank Housing reported that soil sample tests have revealed that lead abatement will be required & that this has been accounted for in the budget; that they are working on designs which will meet the standards of our community; and that the housing density will allow for plenty of open space. 20% of the site will consist of housing, 30% will consist of parking (mostly underground), & the 63% remaining will be available for greenery, playgrounds, "tot lots" (enclosed infant & toddler play areas with donated toys & equipment), etc. The height of the building will be 37 feet. The ceiling heights for the units will be 8 feet, rather than the originally-discussed 9 feet, to conserve energy & conform to County requirements.

    Pascale Sisich, Acquisitions Director for Burbank acknowledged that working with Sonoma County definitely poses challenges -- especially with an unincorporated community like ours -- because it's hard to find locations for affordable housing that can work & that they definitely need to be creative. He then expressed confidence about Burbank's ability to complete a housing project that meets the needs of the community while remaining affordable. Mr. Sisich cited Burbank's successful track record -- they've completed 75 projects of various sizes -- & stated that good management is the "key to success with these communities." He informed us that "we take design very seriously," in terms of the community's "aesthetic view," "practical concerns," & "keeping maintenance costs low." Over the course of the organization's long-time experience, "We have developed clear views on how to develop, maintain, & manage housing."

    Margo Burke, President for the CHDC of Sonoma County, reported that 17 units of this development have been set aside for special needs. Sonoma County has opened a new Mental Health Office in Guerneville. She stated the desire of Community Housing to work with the community to develop mental health services in the area, & increase access to these services. She declared this to be "the key to independent living," & further explained that her agency wants to "focus on people already in the community."

    Mr. Uniack, Tom Lynch, & various others state that they want & need huge amounts of reassurance that existing Russian River residents will be given first priority for placement in this housing development, because redevelopment funds are supposed to help people in our area. A discussion follows, concerning how application forms can be designed to allow preferences & priorities to be set for local residents.

    Mr. DeSalvio asks about housing for senior citizens, & Mr. Sisich responds that a "quirk of state law" allows the creation of senior citizen housing projects, but not "set-asides for X number of seniors." Mr. Lynch quickly & wittily rejoins, "They don't want senior citizens to hang out with young people?

    Meanwhile, Mr. Uniack expresses frustration. He was attempting to voice a motion -- to review things further & give them a closer look -- & felt that his attempts were ignored. He's probably right, since neither I, nor any of the folks seated close to me, had any idea that any sort of motion was underway.

    Mr. Uniack goes on to explain that "Item #5" in some obscure but important document requires that housing projects must receive a "certification of consistency" to ensure that it meets the requirements of the Strategic Plan. Since (I presume) the Strategic Plan document has not yet been completed, I do understand Mr. Uniack's assertions that "The project can't go any further" without the necessary "amendments," even though I personally support this project & believe that the folks at Burbank have what it takes to make the project succeed while adhering to community requirements & standards.

    Mr. Uniack asserted that not all of the RRROC members had received complete materials for Burbank's proposal & that "attachments were missing." Others replied that the document was "really huge" -- too huge to copy & send to everyone in its entirety. Mr. Uniack responded that it's "hard to make decisions with missing information." Mr. Uniack & Lloyd Guccione repsponded that "We had a 90 page document from Monte Rio Parks & Recreation" (regarding the funding RRROC eventually authorized for rehabilitating the Koret Club as a conference center), thereby implying that project proponents have managed to provide adequate documentation in the past. Mr. Lynch added that when he needed additional information for evaluating Sweetwater Springs' proposal, that they sent him the document he needed as a PDF file "right away."

    Ms. Kane replied that the county CAN'T distribute the documents online or via email because they only have hard-copies. Chairman Fein calls an end to this haggling, stating, "We're talking about the PROJECT, not the process of discussing the project." Thankfully, Mr. Fein's admonitions result in people abandoning this fruitless branch of discussion. Unfortunately, it opens up another fruitless branch of discussion: Why a housing-related project is proposed to receive funding from non-housing-related funds. Isn't there enough in the "housing kitty?"

    Ms. Young backs up Mr. Uniack. "We're an oversight committee," she states, & then follows up with an important question: "Will we have authority over the final design? It MUST be compatible with the community. If we want that, would it be a barrier to working with us?" Ms. Young also took diplomatic care to praise previous CDC/Burbank projects & commended them for their "excellent" work. She rocks.

    Ms. Kane said that this would be possible, but would also create an extra layer of bureaucracy by requiring a separate design review process. Mr. Sisich conciliated by staing that while an advisory committee should not have design review authority, he wants to work closely with the RRROC. Ms. Young points out that "design guidelines for the Russian River area are vague," for now & that she hence REALLY wants "this stipulation" because it would make her (& presumably her constituents -- like me) "feel more comfortable."

    Mr. Sisich agrees to this, Mr. Lynch states that we have enough in the housing fund to do this, & Mr. Uniack receives reassurance about various potential liabilities to the community. RRROC member, Ken Wikle, resonantly intones that "This is THE opportunity to DO something for the low-income residents of this community." Mr. Wikle has a long history of impassioned advocacy for affordable housing & services.

    The stage was set for a mutual agreement to this funding, which would have made us feel all righteous, self-satisfied, & so danged-GOOD about ourselves & our community ...

    Until Mr. Uniack decided to pull a Michael Moore & display his slide show. Which consisted of pictures -- mostly flattering, but some decidedly not -- of previous Burbank housing projects. Most of the images & commentary highlighted exemplary housing projects with aesthetically-pleasing & family-friendly features, including playgrounds, recreation areas, & community centers with free-lunch, vacation, & summer programs for kids. But a few photos reflected some of our very worst nightmares about public housing, with grafitti, poorly-kept grounds, etc.

    The folks at Burbank conducted themselves quite calmly & well, while continuing to stress their commitment to -- & successes with -- low-income housing. The scary-looking projects shown in the slide show are in the most difficult & chronically-crime-ridden part of Santa Rosa. Furthermore, Burbanks was only hired to provide "rehabilitation" (i.e. a cosmetic facelift) to this community & has not the authority, ownership, or wherewithal required to turn this community around.

    Some folks on the RRROC were unable to contain their rage. Ken Wikle & Tom Lynch repeatedly snarled & interrupted the slide presentation with impatient comments, like, "Are you DONE now?" & "Is this REALLY necessary?" Quite honestly, I can't blame them, because they have worked so danged hard & valiantly towards getting these eminent folks to give the chronic shortage of affordable housing we experience here in Western Sonoma County even the slightest look-see, let alone consider bringing their resources & experience to bear upon helping us alleviate this challenge.

    Mr. Uniack questioned the fact that the housing project would replace Imperial Lodge -- an existing apartment complex which currently provides several units of affordable housing -- & asked why this needs to happen... & then all sorts of heck broke loose.

    Public commenters & RRROC members told stories about looking for housing for themselves, friends or family members & rejecting these places because they seemed seedy, ill-kept, & un-safe. Mr. Lynch, in an incisive dig towards Mr. Uniack (who lives in Rio Nido), snarled in disgust, "Those apartments [the proposed housing development] are probably 90% better than the crap in Rio Nido. I'm appalled."

    Lenny Weinstein retorted, "I appreciate John's work. He is trying our best for our community. I think obstructing him is out of line. I like Burbank. But our place is wetter than Santa Rosa or Sebastopol..." & presumably more ecologically delicate. Mr. Weinstein also went on to speak in behalf of lower-income residents: "I really feel in my gut .... I'd like to see [more help] for low-income households with no-income shelters for some people. We need to help the poor & also the VERY poor."

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

West County Gazette is now online (yippee!)

YIPPEE!!! I am TOTALLY thrilled to read Vesta Copestake's announcement in her latest West County Gazette that she has recently launched an online (Web) version of her Forestville, CA-based monthly newspaper. You can check it out for yourself at www.westcountygazette.com. It looks as professional, cleanly- laid out, & information-packed as the print version of her publication.

I'm a huge fan of Ms. Copestake, as well as of Johanna Lynch, who publishes the Russian River Times out of Monte Rio, CA each month. These two energetic, intelligent, community-oriented women -- with generous support from local writers & advertisers -- manage to cover just about everything that's going on from Santa Rosa to Gualala, cut through the bureaucrat-ese, & succinctly explain how these various issues & developments would affect us & why we should care. They also publish listings for local events, meetings & volunteer opportunities.

What sets these two newspapers apart from two other excellent & more polished local publications (the Russian River Monthly & the West County Times) & makes me eagerly look forward to reading them each month are the passionately stated opinions of the publishers & their readers. Ms. Copestakes & Ms. Lynch make no pretense towards journalistic objectivity & clearly state their personal views. But since they care about our small, rural community & the people in it (many of whom they personally know & see day-to-day), they do make every effort to be responsible, balanced & fair. An awful lot of research, interviewing & thought seems to go into their writing, & they are also both firmly committed to publishing any reasonable (& occasionally UNreasonable) opinion or letter to the editor. They violate the cardinal rule taught in Journalism 101 -- never say "I" -- with cheerfully deliberate exuberance, because their newspapers are published as a labor of love.

I appreciate the West County Gazette & the Russian River Times because I used to publish an alternative community newspaper during my early 20's in the large, North-Eastern city in which I then lived, with a similar format, network of contributors & advertisers, & level of circulation (a free, black & white, tabloid/fold, newsprint monthly with approximately 42-60 pages & a circulation of 10,000, which was supported by a steady & devoted group of advertisers & volunteer contributors). Like Ms. Copestakes & Ms. Lynch, I was passionate, outspoken & idealistic & wanted to provide our readers -- who were ignored by the more mainstream media -- with coverage of information they cared about & a forum for their views.

Unlike them, I was only able to do this for three years before I threw in the towel. Publishing an alternative community newspaper is an interesting, personally fulfilling, & sometimes awfully danged FUN occupation. I loved it & often look back on those years as among the happiest of my life. But it also involves an awful lot of grinding, unrelenting hard work & pulling multiple all-nighters in order to deliver the paper to the printer on time. And then there's all the ad sales, circulation, book-keeping, administration & other odious tasks which nobody wants to do & you hence wind up doing yourself in order to support the writing, editing, design, & networking stuff you would rather be doing. I lived in a very expensive area & eventually got burnt-out on working so hard for such a small (& frequently fluctuating) amount of money.

Yet these women have been producing these fabulous, ad-hoc newspapers year-after-year. I can't even begin to express my gratitude. But here's a start: Thank you. You GO girls!