Former Antagonists Cooperate On Sonoma County Report

Paul Shigley on
May 1, 2004

In a remarkable political turnabout, two land use organizations that vigorously fought one another during the 2000 election in Sonoma County have issued a joint report calling for more intensive city-centered growth to protect agriculture and natural resources.

San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau released "Preventing Sprawl: Farmers and Environmentalists Working Together" at the end of March.

As recently as 3 1/2 years ago, the two groups were mortal enemies. At that time, they were engaged in dueling campaigns over the Rural Heritage Initiative, a Greenbelt-backed initiative that would have required landowners to receive voter approval for most rezonings (see CP&DR, December 2000, October 2000). Greenbelt contended the measure — modeled on Ventura County’s Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) initiative — was necessary to prevent urban development from swallowing farmland and open spaces. The Farm Bureau countered that the measure was unnecessarily restrictive and burdensome to landowners. After a bloody and relatively expensive campaign, 57% percent of Sonoma County voters rejected the Rural Heritage Initiative.

After the 2000 election, both sides said, "This is ridiculous," explained Lex McCorvey, Farm Bureau executive director. So representatives of the two organizations began a dialogue. "We just started talking and communicating. We found we could set aside our past differences," McCorvey said.

The two sides also found that they held a great deal in common. With a $200,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, they spent nearly two years examining local history, studying land use, economic and demographic trends, reaching some conclusions, and making four recommendations. Those are:

• Maintain a strong general plan that focuses growth into already developed areas and protects agricultural and natural resources lands.

• Support local policies and programs that encourage more efficient use of land within existing urban boundaries.

• Encourage Cloverdale to adopt an urban growth boundary.

• Extend funding for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

All of the recommendations build on existing policies. Since 1978, the county’s general plan has guided growth into the cities. And during the 1990s, voters approved urban growth boundaries for every city except Cloverdale, a small town along Highway 101 near Mendocino County. Voters also approved the countywide open space district and a half-cent sales tax to fund its activities; the district and tax are set to expire in 2011.

But the report says that without bolstering those policies, growth pressure will spill onto the farmland and community separators that provide for a $600 million-a-year agricultural industry and draw 4 million tourists annually.

"We have to do better on density," said Kelly Brown, Greenbelt’s Sonoma-Marin field representative. "We have to use land more efficiently within the urban growth boundaries."

Based on Department of Finance growth projections, Sonoma County’s population will increase from 456,000 in 2000 to about 750,000 in 2040, necessitating the construction of 115,000 new housing units. "Under the city-centered growth model," the report concludes, "Sonoma County’s cities could accommodate 90% of the predicted population growth (265,000 persons) if they increase the average people per acre for new developments from 7 to 17."

Initial reaction from elected officials and other community leaders has been positive, said Brown and McCorvey. But both recognize that not-in-my-backyard battles lie ahead without further public outreach and education.

Still, there appears to be momentum growing for a more intense use of land within the cities, and the organizations appear eager to play a role in future land use decisions. Plus both Greenbelt and the Farm Bureau, after some initial hesitation, are happy to have new a new ally.

"Adversarial roles don’t work," McCorvey said. "It’s all a matter of the evolution of a community."

Contacts:
Lex McCorvey, Sonoma County Farm Bureau, (707) 544-5575.
Kelly Brown, Greenbelt Alliance Sonoma-Marin Field Office, (707) 575-3661.
Greenbelt website (which contains report): www.greenbelt.org