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Photo by Janet Orsi

High-wire act: On Wednesday, line crews in Forestville cleared felled trees. High winds knocked out phones and 80,000 county customers lost power.

Hell and High Water

SONOMA COUNTY "I've seen every flood since 1947, and I never saw the water come up this fast," said Forestville campground owner Bob Burke, as the Russian River climbed up its banks Tuesday afternoon. While the muddy torrent swept logs and debris across his submerged picnic area, he marveled, "I was out here fishing just yesterday morning, and the water was too clear to fish."

Chris Godley, an assistant emergency services coordinator for Sonoma County, says the rate of the river's rise accelerated fourfold in some areas Monday evening, to rise as much as two feet per hour. "There's not a steady rate of rise throughout the river," he adds. "Different areas absorb the runoff to varying degrees." The steep topography of the area of the river's headwaters tends to channel runoff from that area into the river flow more rapidly than downstream, he adds.

But it is the rapid development of lands downstream that is compounding the problems, according to Sebastopol hydrologist Eugene Boudreau. "Urbanization is not just creating more impermeables" such as buildings, streets, and parking areas, he says, "it also includes storm drainage. This means the flood peaks go way up and occur more often than normal."

Moreover, "if you urbanize 10 percent of the area, you don't get 10 percent more runoff, you get five times more," he continues.

Boudreau says this cause-and-effect relationship between development and flooding has been well documented by the U.S. Geological Survey in other areas, but he charges that local officials have "turned a blind eye because they're so pro-development. They don't ever talk about what the cumulative effect is."

Rainfall from this first-of-the-season storm varied throughout the watershed, but averaged eight inches, enough to abruptly bring us back to historic seasonal averages. Only an unexpected break in the series of storm systems moving landward let the waters recede earlier this week after cresting about four feet below flood level late Tuesday.

But with the two major floods of last January and March still fresh in local memories, the near-miss this time is a source of more worry than relief, as the rest of the winter rains still lie ahead.

Property Values Slip

SONOMA COUNTY Property tax revenues barely kept pace with inflation this year, as the total assessments countywide totaled about $273 million, just 2.5 percent over last year's figure. The flat numbers reflect stagnant home values locally, as a real estate industry source reports that 24 percent of the homes sold in the county this year were bought for less than the seller paid. Last year, that number was 25 percent. The county has reassessed 1,200 homes downward this year, mostly in Petaluma, Sebastopol, Healds-burg, and the unincorporated portions of the county. Another 900 requests are still pending.

Convention Center Vote

SANTA ROSA Plans for a long-sought hotel and convention center adjacent to Railroad Square are expected to take a step forward Dec. 18 when the status of negotiations with the prospective developer is discussed in a joint meeting of the City Council and the Redevelopment Agency, at which a feasibility study will also be presented. In the 9.5-acre city-owned site, Santa Rosa has "the land and the ability to put in public improvements, which paves the way for private development," says redevelopment director Steve Burke. But the history of the property, which includes a brewery, tannery, gas station, lumber yards, railroad spur, and auto dismantling yard has left a toxic legacy, including lead in the soil and other problems.

A $3 million cleanup program will be needed before the convention center project can begin, but Burke remains hopeful the city can get the site "ready for groundbreaking in 1997."

Homeless Program Set

PETALUMA Under a new interfaith program, four local churches will begin opening their doors to homeless families beginning Jan. 1. Two daily meals and transportation to schools will be offered. Meanwhile, the City Council last week narrowly approved a homeless drop-in center at the Petaluma Kitchen, a block away from the public library. Foes complained about the high number of social service programs in the area. In recent weeks the county had hired a security guard to patrol the library grounds, a frequent hangout for the homeless.

Flores Appointed Mayor

ROHNERT PARK Politically confused City Council members have elevated Councilman Armando Flores to the position of mayor, after two earlier attempts to fill the position failed. Flores replaces Dave Eck, who now becomes vice mayor. Two other council members, Dawna Gallagher and Linda Spiro, had withdrawn their names because of deep political divisions in the city government.

Open Space Saved

PETALUMA For nearly a million dollars, the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has purchased two parcels that will remain undeveloped in the future. Those include a 116-acre ranch on the western side of Taylor Mountain on Petaluma Hill Road southeast of Santa Rosa and a 17-acre tract on the McNear Peninsula that juts out into the Petaluma River along Lakeville Highway.

Moratorium Lifted

WINDSOR After keeping a tight lid on new residential development for the past six years, the Windsor Town Council voted 3-2 last week to end their moratorium and allow new subdivision applications to be filed. However, the city has not yet finalized its own General Plan, which means new applications will be processed under the 1986 council planning policies, which applied prior to the town's incorporation. The moratorium was adopted in 1989 when the town ran out of sewage capacity.

Short Take: A former Sonoma County jail sergeant has been charged with torturing a Santa Rosa man to recover some money the officer had lost. David Phillips may face a state prison term if convicted of the assault.

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From the Dec. 14-20, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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© 1995 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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