Monday, October 13, 2014

A Tuesday Evening of Civic Involvement

This coming Tuesday evening will offer two opportunities for involvement in the Petaluma community.  Those willing to commit an extended chunk of time can be informed, and perhaps also entertained, from 5:30 until 9:30

Petaluma Urban Chat: The monthly meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will fall on the Tuesday the 14th this month.  As always, the meeting will convene at 5:30pm at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.

This month’s meeting will feature a discussion of Measure Q on the Petaluma ballot, the proposed one percent sales tax bump, the revenues from which the current City Council anticipates directing toward deferred infrastructure repairs, the needs of the emergency services departments, and the Rainier Connector

City Council candidate Dave King has accepted an invitation to join Urban Chat to discuss his views on the measure.

To set the stage for the Tuesday discussion, it’s interesting, and also confounding, to look at the positions that have been taken on Measure Q versus positions on the Rainier Connector.

All of the City Council candidates, including the mayoral candidates, express support for the Rainier Connector.  Some also support Measure Q because of the funding that it would provide for the Connector.  But others oppose Measure Q because the funding commitment isn’t sufficiently committed to the Rainier Connector.  If elected, they promise to put forth another, stronger ballot measure at a future date.

On the other hand, all the self-identified urbanists with whom I’ve spoken oppose the Rainier Connector.  Many, including me, acknowledge that it would make Petaluma a better place, but balk at the price tag, arguing that there are better uses for the money.  As a result, many urbanists oppose Measure Q because of the funding that it provides toward the Connector.  But others, again including me, support Measure Q because the other municipal needs are sufficiently dire that it would be wrong to subject the City to further financial distress.

About the only apparent conclusion that can be drawn from that intertwined spaghetti of opinions is that none of the City Council candidates are urbanists.  And I don’t believe that even that conclusion is valid.

I can’t promise that a frank discussion, even with the thoughts of Dave King, will bring clarity to the issue, but perhaps it can cut a bit of the fog.

Regular attendees know that the 5:30 start time tends to be bit soft, with some attendees still in line to secure beverages when the minute hand points straight down.  But for this month, we will start promptly at the designated time.   King has another obligation to which he must depart at 6:15, so those who don’t have a beverage in front of them at 5:30 will be asked to wait until King departs.

As always, everyone is welcome.  New attendees are particularly encouraged to join us.

Planning Commission: Immediately after the Urban Chat meeting, the Petaluma Planning Commission will convene at City Hall.  The agenda item likely to attract the greatest controversy is the proposed modifications to the Zoning Code and SMART Code to permit and to regulate rentals of private homes within mixed-use and residential neighborhoods, the types of rentals generally described as “AirBnB”.

(Disclaimer: I’ve never stayed in an AirBnB rental, but once spent several nights in a VRBO rental home.  I secured the home for an extended family getaway, but most of the participants came down ill in the days before we gathered, so there were only two of us rattling around in a big house overlooking the North California surf.  To the best of my recollection, we didn’t make enough noise to disturb the neighbors.  Also, I had earlier found rental flats in both London and Venice through Craigslist.)

The whole AirBnB controversy irritates me.  If we hadn’t collectively and wrongly turned our backs on urbanism, I don’t believe there would even be an AirBnB controversy.  Instead, there would be clusters of mixed-use multi-family dwellings near walkable cores.  Individual owners within those buildings might still wish to rent their homes on a daily or weekly basis, but that would be an issue for the homeowners association to address, not the entire city.  Besides, adding another further people to busy urban sidewalks would be barely noticeable.

And if enough rental rooms were available near the walkable core, I doubt there would be a market for rentals in the more distant residential-only neighborhoods, except for properties with special settings or views.

But we did turn away from urbanism, those buildings that should logically contain the AirBnB units of today don’t exist, and now we must decide what to do about AirBnB.

So, urbanism has little to offer us on the AirBnB subject except a severe tsk-tsk-tsk.  Instead, we’re left on our own to sort out the balance of private property rights versus the rights of neighbors to the peaceful enjoyment of their own homes.

With that grumpy preamble, I find the City staff to have done a credible job in balancing the multiple objectives.

Homeowners who wish to rent out all or part of their homes would pay an initial fee, annual renewal fee, and transient occupancy taxes to the city.

Neighbors would be notified of intended rental operations.  Although they wouldn’t be able to oppose the permits, their complaints about operations would be grounds for revocation or non-renewal of permits.

Even though the City doubts their ability to enforce them on a regular basis, maximum occupancy standards would be set so that non-compliance can be considered in actions against property owners.

Minimum parking standards would be imposed on the rental operations, although limited use of street parking would be allowed.  Any excess need for street parking would be subject to a land-use action which the neighbors could oppose.

The entire City staff report can be found here.  I find it well-written and reasonable.  Although I certainly understand the concerns of the neighbors, many of which can found here and here.

But my final test is the hypothetical question of how I would feel if the proposed regulations were to affect my neighborhood.

I don’t know of any AirBnB rentals that have been proposed near my house, but I don’t think I’d mind a few AirBnB renters sharing my sidewalks.  (Indeed, there are a couple of neighbors whom I’d happily trade for overnight renters.)  It’s a fun little neighborhood.  If I was visiting Petaluma, it’s the kind of neighborhood in which I’d enjoy resting my head, second only to staying closer to downtown.

Regarding my Tuesday evening, I’ll definitely attend the Urban Chat meeting.  I’ll try to also attend the Planning Commission meeting, although other obligations may interfere.

In my next post, I’ll return to the topic of urbanism and seniors, tackling the question of walkability and other non-motorized options for seniors.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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