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Grow Up, Not Out
Farmers and environmentalists work to prevent sprawl
By Joy Lanzendorfer
Every day, a new construction project seems to be breaking ground in Sonoma County. Rohnert Park has four Starbucks coffeehouses now. Windsor has a whole new downtown. Lots that have been empty fields for decades are suddenly laid with boxy frames, the rough beginnings of new buildings. There are new strip malls, new chain restaurants and new apartment buildings everywhere you go. No part of the county seems untouched by the rash of construction.
It makes some people nervous. As the county continues to grow, what will happen to our rolling hills and glistening coastline? Will the new development take over the entire county, creeping into the hills and forests like some sort of cancer of convenience?
A new report by Greenbelt Alliance and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau takes a hard look at this issue. Called Preventing Sprawl, the 28-page report looks at the history of land use in Sonoma County and makes predictions and recommendations for the future. The groups received a $200,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to develop the report. Its purpose is to educate the public and promote policy recommendations, explains Kelly Brown, spokesperson for Greenbelt Alliance.
"We're looking at the report as a launching point for long-term collaboration between farmers and environmentalists," Brown says.
An agreement on land use between an agriculture association and an environmental group is a fairly unusual occurrence. In many ways, farmers and environmentalists have different views about land, with the former group advocating its use and the latter urging its preservation.
Preventing Sprawl came out of the heated battle between environmentalists and farmers over the Rural Heritage Initiative that was on the 2000 ballot. It tried to limit sprawl by requiring voter approval for all general plan amendments in rural areas, thereby slowing the conversion of farmland into housing developments. Many environmentalists supported the plan, saying it would stop urban sprawl, while the agriculture community opposed it, saying it would put burdens on farm operations. Voters shot down the measure.
After the dust settled, members from both groups got together to find common ground. They found that even though their views on land differed, they agreed on many of the same points.
"In general, all sides want to protect agricultural land and not have sprawl occur," says Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "We realize that growth is going to occur. It's just a matter of where and how."
The report predicts Sonoma County will add 130,000 new residents by 2025 and another 160,000 by 2040.
Despite the population increase, the report is surprisingly upbeat about how Sonoma County has handled growth so far. It says that Sonoma County's general plan has been an "effective tool in managing growth" since its creation 25 years ago.
"There's no doubt that the underlying policy of preserving agriculture and green land and separating communities has worked," says Eric Koenigshofer, who spearheaded the report and, as a former member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, helped develop the original general plan in the 1970s. "Twenty-five years ago, 60 percent of the population lived in the unincorporated areas and 40 percent lived in the cities. Today, that has flip-flopped."
The report suggests that future growth should be confined within city boundaries along the Highway 101 corridor. Cities should grow up, not out. It also urges the restriction of single-family detached homes on large lots in favor of multifamily dwellings.
Critics of the report have said that the kind of life the report advocates shoves people into small, crowded spaces. Many people in Sonoma County dream of a house in the country with enough land around it for a garden and a yard for their kids to play in. They don't like the idea of that dream being restricted more than it already has been by high housing prices.
But advocates of the report say that the growth is going to happen regardless. They are only trying to find the best way to deal with it.
"The county was magnificent when I got here in 1972," says Koenigshofer. "If everyone who came here after that would just leave, it would be perfect. But no one gets to say that. Our goal is to manage that growth as best we can with the realities we're facing."
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From the April 7-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.