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The PISA Zone

Columnist: Bob Andrews
June, 2014 Issue
Columnist

Bob Andrews
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I called the listing agent, who politely declined to discuss property issues, citing confidentiality. So I went to Santa Rosa’s Community Development Department.

 
 
 
“Settimo” is the name used by my secret source for information about governmental foibles in the city of Santa Rosa. I’ve never met Settimo. He speaks with an Italian accent and knows a lot about Italian food and wine, especially Bruno Giacosa Barolo.
 
Settimo called and said, “There’s something strange about the commercial building at 1480 Guerneville Road, right where it meets the railroad track. The city changed the zoning, maybe specifically for a SMART train station. It may be hard [Settimo actually said, ‘molto difficile’] to get a use permit for the types of businesses that traditionally rented the property.”
 
I drove over to see the parcel, which is about an acre. Sure enough, it backs up to the railroad tracks and is for sale. It has a building of 10,000 square feet, one-fifth warehouse and four-fifths office space. The major rental space is vacant, where a kitchen and bath shop used to be. Two smaller tenants are still there, a real estate/insurance office and a law office.
 
I checked the zoning online and found the strange notation of “PISA.” The letters stand for Public/Institutional Station Area. It was obvious that PISA zoning was relatively new, because the property has had regular office and commercial tenants for decades.
 
I called the listing agent, who politely declined to discuss property issues, citing confidentiality. So I went to Santa Rosa’s Community Development Department, where a very helpful gentleman spent 45 minutes with me on the topic. I learned the property had been rezoned in September 2012. The zoning went from Office/Commercial to PISA. I asked, “Did the owner ask for the zoning change?” Answer: No, the city did it on its own. I asked, “Did SMART ask for the zoning change?” Answer: Probably not. I asked, “Well, then, why did this zoning change happen?” Answer: The zoning change for this particular parcel was just part of a much larger area, mostly on the other side of Guerneville Road, also changed to PISA zoning. It has to do with the General Plan, and the need for space for a station and, perhaps, higher-density housing around the station.
 
I asked: “What types of businesses could operate in this building under PISA zoning?” Answer: Restaurants, an ATM machine, a day care center, certain medical services or a taxi dispatch facility with a Minor Conditional Use Permit (cost: $2,523). I asked: “How about a kitchen and bath shop, like the one that was there?” Answer: Such a shop isn’t allowed under PISA zoning. However, it’s possible that it would be allowed under a “continuing use” exception, with a Conditional Use Permit (cost: $10,142 plus $1,747 for a public hearing at the Planning Commission), but only if it could be shown that the shop wasn’t “intensifying the use” of the property. And a tenant could pay those application and hearing fees and still be turned down. I asked: “So if the owner wanted to rent out the space as it was used for many years, there will be steep costs for the tenant, applying for a “non-conforming use” permit that may or may not be granted?” Answer: Yes. I asked, “Won’t this negatively affect the value of the property?” Answer: Not sure.
 
I asked the gentleman what he thought about this situation. He said, “All of it seems very strange.” There’s the same word Settimo used. So I called SMART. Here’s what I learned.
 
SMART does not need the property at 1480 Guerneville Road for a station. The stemwalls are already in place for the North Santa Rosa station, starting 175 feet south of Guerneville Road—just past the property. SMART intends to use street parking, so it doesn’t need 1480 for a parking lot. Even more interesting, several potential buyers of the property have called SMART to ask about its plans, and to ask why the property was rezoned to PISA. In the words of one SMART employee, “The city changed the zoning, and it’s a weird zoning change. We know the owner wants to sell, and he’s kind of screwed by the change.” Strange? Weird? Screwed? The mystery continues.


 

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