Tuolumne housing debate a draw

SONORA -- Most Tuolumne County leaders Tuesday favored a long-debated affordable housing strategy, but could not quite pull the trigger on a contentious ordinance.

When two attempts failed at amending the proposed law for inclusionary zoning, county supervisors continued the issue until their Oct. 9 meeting.

People on both sides of the issue left disappointed. But those supporting the affordable housing tool have reason to hope for eventual satisfaction.

"We definitely do have a housing need that is not being addressed by the market," said Supervisor Paolo Maffei, rejecting a main claim by developers opposing the proposed ordinance.

Inclusionary zoning requires that builders make a percentage of new subdivisions affordable to low-wage earners. Such laws have been adopted in 16 counties and 154 cities throughout California, though agencies in the foothills and Northern San Joaquin Valley have been resistant. Ripon and Jackson are notable exceptions.

Housing advocates had hoped Tuolumne County would join in four years ago, when supervisors unanimously agreed to pursue an inclusionary zoning ordinance.

The ordinance would apply to unincorporated areas of the county -- everywhere but So-nora, its only city.

But drafting the proposal proved difficult and polarizing, and supervisors could not agree Tuesday at the end of two hearings lasting a combined eight hours.

"This toolbox is rather scattered," said Supervisor Liz Bass, alluding to the concept that inclusionary zoning is among several tools available to boost affordable housing.

Tuesday's hearing was largely a repeat of one Sept. 7, when a small army of supporters squared off with a sizable group heavily composed of builders.

"I have no intention of living anywhere else. This is my home," said 32-year-old Amos Farley, recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. "But I came to the realization that I cannot afford to live here. If not for family, I would have had to move to live and survive."

Mark Dyken, director of the Family Resource Center in Jamestown, said a recent survey showed that among 550 students in his school district, 85 are homeless.

Supporters on Tuesday brought a cadre of high-level advocates, including university professors and a bank executive.

"We see these as good investments, not risky investments," said Nancy Conk of Bank of America.

Donny Lieberman, president of Sunseri Construction, said his company has been building affordable units in foothill and rural regions for 30 years. "It's our belief that inclusionary policies strengthen our communities by providing housing all across the spectrum," he said.

But real estate broker Cheryl Balbuena said active listings in Tuolumne County this year have averaged $261,000.

"Those are affordable houses," she said. "We do have places for these folks to live."

Mark Banks, president of the Tuolumne County Building Industry, said builders agree that new affordable housing is needed.

"What we don't need is this ordinance," he said. "It is wrong, poorly drafted and is not going to get us where we want to go."

The proposed ordinance would require up to 20 percent below-market units in projects of five homes or more and prohibit owners from selling at market prices for 50 years.

Supervisor Dick Pland suggested a compromise of 10 percent for projects of 10 units or more, for 10 years, but the vote failed 2-3 when only Supervisor Teri Murrison agreed.

Chairman Mark Thornton suggested revisiting the ordinance in two years, plus sunsets on selling of 10 years for owner-occupied homes and 15 years for rentals. That vote also failed 2-3, when only Pland joined Thornton.

"Be patient as we wrangle over the details," Murrison said, addressing the crowd.

Maffei scorned the "NIMBYs" who had packed the board chamber to argue against higher densities and granny flats in previous proposals. Squeezing more homes on a parcel maximizes profits for builders and creates some rental units, but often is opposed by neighbors protesting, "Not in my back yard."

"So who pays for (affordable housing)?" Maffei said. "Maybe we should have a countywide property tax. That would fly like a lead balloon. It's got to be paid from the source we have at hand, and that is new construction."

Tuolumne County supervisors are scheduled to resume deliberations on inclusionary housing at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at 2 Green St., Sonora.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.