By Greg Cahill
GET READY for the mother of all environmental battles. Organizers of a ballot measure that would put Sonoma County's worsening suburban sprawl to a key vote moved one step closer to their goal Monday when they turned in petitions bearing more than 26,500 signatures (10,000 more than needed) to the county Registrar of Voters, almost guaranteeing the initiative a place on the November ballot.
No sooner had the ink dried on the petitions than backers and opponents squared off at a skirmish in an unlikely spot--the streets of San Francisco. On Tuesday, the Greenbelt Alliance hosted a cocktail party in North Beach for the Sonoma Leadership Council, a group of San Francisco-based conservation-minded business people with connection to the county.
(Much to the chagrin of insulted local farmers, the invitation noted that attire for the event included "city slicker or country bumpkin.")
In response, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau hastily organized a tractor demonstration to oppose the initiative, which they argue was crafted without input from the farm community.
Proponents say the initiative, which would impose a 30-year freeze on existing zoning and land-use designations in unincorporated areas of the county, is in response to increasing demands for development of farmlands.
It is supported by several major conservation groups, including Sonoma County Conservation Action, the Greenbelt Alliance, and the Sierra Club. It is opposed by the politically powerful farm bureau, United Winegrowers of Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, and others.
"The people of Sonoma County have shown their commitment to curbing sprawl with their overwhelming support of the urban growth boundaries, established in most cities now," notes Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly. "The Rural Heritage Initiative picks up where the UGBs leave off--by giving the voters a choice: Do we want to become the next San Jose, or do we want to protect the undeveloped lands that are so essential to our quality of life?"
In a Sonoma County Farm Bureau press release, Norm Yenni of the North Bay Ag Alliance called the initiative "a cynical, political strategy to limit new agriculture in Sonoma County."
Napa County passed a similar measure in 1990, allowing that county to cultivate its international image as a key player in the domestic wine industry and helping to build a lucrative multibillion-dollar tourist industry.
"Despite growth pressures from the Bay Area, Sonoma County has kept nearly 80 percent of our rural land," said AnnaLis Dalrymple of the Greenbelt Alliance. "All we need to do is look south to see why we must protect our greenbelt of farmlands and open space before it's too late. Fresh local produce, a healthy environment, beautiful views, and places for recreation are some of the bountiful treasures we all enjoy now as an integral part of our quality of life here.
"The Rural Heritage Initiative will allow future generations to enjoy them as well."
BACKERS of the measure note that there is plenty of evidence of mounting pressure to develop farmlands for office and industrial space, as well as housing, in this booming economy. For instance, Forbes magazine recently ranked Sonoma County as the nation's third most dynamic economic region.
Supporters of the RHI say it's time to put on the brakes. In a published statement, petition coordinator Helen Shane said that "the incredible response we had on the streets is a clear indication that the voters value Sonoma County's rural heritage. Over 200 volunteers have been working hard for the past 10 weeks to reach the voters. Our call was 'Do you want to save Sonoma County from sprawl?' Eighty percent of the time, the response was 'Where do I sign?'
"Some wanted to know more, and then almost all signed--and added, 'Thank you for doing this!' "
The RHI campaign is expected to draw opposition from the county's burgeoning high-tech industry, and supporters are urging voters to keep Sonoma County from becoming "Santa Clara North."
"Passage of the Rural Heritage Initiative will tell big-money interests that although we welcome technology growth, we are determined to preserve our $3 billion agricultural industry and our $1 billion tourism industry," notes John Blayney, a retired planner and spokesperson for Citizens for Sonoma County's Future.
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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.