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Sprawl Bustin'

By Bruce Robinson

SCATTERED AMONG the army of local candidates, various bond measures, high-profile statewide policy initiatives, and local school district elections that jam the upcoming ballot are some key planning decisions that voters are also being asked to make. Those are issues that, both sides agree, will have far-reaching implications for the quality of life here well into the next century.

Urban growth boundaries, often abbreviated as UGBs, are on the ballot in Healdsburg (Measure I), Sebastopol (Measure O), Santa Rosa (Measure G), and Rohnert Park (Measure N), while voters throughout the county face an interlocking vote on Measure D. A related decision awaits the electorate in Windsor, where Measure Q offers local residents a chance to decide the fate of the controversial Wal-Mart development proposed at Highway 101 and Shiloh Road.

If most or all of the UGBs win approval, Sonoma County would become the first county in the United States to have a coordinated, organized network of urban growth boundaries," says Christa Shaw, the North Bay coordinator for Greenbelt Alliance.

The benefits to such an outcome, she says, include the preservation of agricultural lands and small-town character; economically vigorous downtowns; reduced costs to taxpayers, since urban services would not have to be extended outward; and citizen control over the size of their own communities.

The effort to establish such a precedent is a natural for Sonoma County on several counts, Shaw suggests. Sonoma was "one of the first [counties] in California whose residents voted to tax themselves for open space conservation," she notes. "This is continuing in that tradition. And because agriculture is so important to our economy, people 'get it.' "

Yet the most vocal opposition to the UGB measures so far has come from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "Growth is going to occur where there is the least resistance," says Farm Bureau president John Bucher. He fears that adopting the UGBs will intensify development pressures on ag lands outside the urban areas. "It could be ranchettes or the parcelization of ag lands," he says, but the result is still a loss of productive farmlands. "Even the proponents acknowledge that this is a problem, but UGBs do nothing to address it.

"It's really frustrating. The proponents are using agriculture to push their own agenda, no growth in Sonoma County," Bucher adds. "I don't want to see this county paved over, but we need a balance in our economy."

Despite those concerns, initial indications are that most of the UGB measures share broad support, although Shaw expects more resistance to surface in the final days before the election. "I'd be surprised if the Home Builders Association lets these slide," she says. "This kind of movement is anathema to what the urban sprawl industry has been doing in California for the last 40 years, and they can't afford to see it continue. The idea is starting to leak out all over the Bay Area," says Shaw.

Even Fairfield in Solano County is talking about placing a UGB measure on the ballot in its next municipal election, "which is extraordinary."

Here in Sonoma County, "the domino effect is already in place," Shaw says, with strong support for UGBs building in both Windsor and Cotati, where a vote was put off until after the city completes the process of updating its General Plan.

ALTHOUGH THE FOUR UGB measures facing local voters share the same general outline--they would set fixed lines beyond which municipalities could not expand for a set interval, usually 20 years--they are not exactly the same. Measures I and O in Healdsburg and Sebastopol hew closely to general plans that have already been adopted in those cities, and mostly seek to reaffirm existing controls on their cities' sphere of influence.

Exemptions may be granted for new parks, schools, or affordable housing, if for some reason they cannot be accommodated within the urban limits through rezoning or other measures, something that proponents say is highly improbable.

The county's Measure D is more complicated. It focuses on the community separators defined in the county's General Plan, and would preclude the "upzoning" of any property in the half of the community separator adjacent to a city that adopts UGBs.

"It should have been [Measure] C, for 'complicated,'" sighs Shaw, who predicts that the full effects of Measure D will not be felt for another decade. "There are such tight regulations covering the community separators that it's not going to mean much for maybe 10 years," she reasons, but by that time, "the development pressure will be 10-fold what it is today in Sonoma County, and we'll be really glad that Measure D passed."

The true battlegrounds in this skirmish against urban sprawl are the two cities where the most sprawl has already occurred. Although Measure G in Santa Rosa was ultimately placed on the ballot by a unified City Council, that outcome followed a heated debate over the 450-plus acre Taylor Mountain development proposal at the south end of the city.

Although it remains within the boundary proposed by Measure G, the initiative specifies that it must be phased in and cannot be considered for active development until 2010.

But not everyone is happy with that compromise--witness the aggressive "No on G" campaign that erupted last weekend. Bright orange­on­black signs appeared all over Santa Rosa, with the cryptic slogan, "Don't Get Tricked. No on G." The stealth campaign--which emerg-ed in violation of the state's fair political practice

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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