Proposed Elnoka project would add 676 living units near Oakmont in Santa Rosa – Santa Rosa Press Democrat

June 5, 2021, 3:05PM

Updated 26 minutes ago

Frustrated by years of red tape, rebuffed repeatedly in his attempts to move forward on his pet project in east Santa Rosa, Bill Gallaher vowed to keep fighting.

“I’m too ornery to give up,” the longtime Sonoma County developer told The Press Democrat in July 2009. “They’ve met their match with me.”

Gallaher, the founder of Oakmont Senior Living, was speaking about his plan to develop Elnoka, the 68-acre property bounded to the south by Oakmont Village — the retirement community of about 4,500 residents — and by Highway 12 to the east and Trione-Annadel State Park to the west.

Twelve years later, the battle goes on.

On May 1, the city of Santa Rosa released a 726-page draft environmental impact report for Gallaher’s latest version of the project, the Elnoka Continuing Care Retirement Community, whose 676 residential units would house roughly 1,000 senior citizens.

While it will take city planners most, if not all of the summer, to assess comments and weigh revisions for the report, battle lines are already drawn. Opponents believe the Elnoka project will create far too much traffic on Highway 12 — which would, in turn, make it that much harder for people to evacuate in case of wildfire.

The release of that tome-like report marked the beginning of a 45-day comment period, which ends June 15.

“We have over 75 written comments so far,” Kristinae Toomian, a senior planner for city, said on June 2. Many are from residents of Oakmont, and others who live in the immediate area.

Traffic woes and wildfire evacuations

The vast majority of those emails raise two main concerns. The first is traffic. The main entrance for the complex would require a new traffic light on Highway 12. Adding 1,000 residents to the area will further congest that major artery — especially during commuting hours.

The second major issue being raised is how the Elnoka project affects emergency evacuations, in case of wildfire. Oakmont was evacuated during the fires of 2017 and last September. On both occasions, recalled Oakmont Village Association president Tom Kendrick, it took some people more than two hours just to get from their houses to Highway 12.

“If you drop another 1,000 people in the neighborhood, an already unacceptable situation gets worse,” he said.

Jack Tibbetts, the Santa Rosa councilman whose district includes the Elnoka parcel, was in Oakmont late on the night of Sept. 27, 2020. With the Glass fire encroaching from the north, residents inched along in heavy traffic. “It was insane, bumper to bumper,” he said.

“I’m a pretty pro-housing guy,” Tibbetts added. “I ran on being pro-housing, and I don’t think I’ve ever voted against a housing project. But when it comes to this particular project, what needs to be front and center of our consciousness isn’t housing. It’s safety.”

Regardless of how many housing units the proposal ultimately contains, “whether it’s 600 or 200,” he said, “the questions in my mind are going to be: How are we evacuating those people? And how do we not only avoid increasing the amount of traffic, in the event of an evacuation, but actually reduce it?”

Steve McCullagh, who handles site acquisition and development for Oakmont Senior Living and is managing the Elnoka project, did not respond to requests for comment.

Windsor-based Oakmont Senior Living, founded in 1997 by Bill Gallaher, has planned and developed more than 50 retirement communities in the western United States. It is not affiliated with Oakmont Village, the 1,400-acre planned Santa Rosa retirement community of more than 3,000 homes that dates back to 1963.

At a May 27 meeting of the Santa Rosa Planning Commission, Commissioner Akash Kalia said he and fellow members noted with some concern that the draft environmental impact report for Elnoka was completed in 2017 — before the Tubbs, Nuns and Glass fires that scarred much of eastern Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. Since then, he noted, the issue of wildfire evacuations in that part of the county has become much more sensitive.

The proposed complex’s 676 residential units include 528 apartments, a 62-unit care center and 12 attached units for employee housing. It also features private and formal dining rooms, a café, swimming pool, pet parks, walking paths, a beauty salon and other amenities.