Perhaps Sonoma County can finally put to rest any simmering debate about "sprawl" on this part of the North Coast.
There is no sprawl. As the latest census figures show, there's barely been any growth.
Sonoma County's population grew a mere 5.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 — a total of about 2,500 people a year. Some cities, including Rohnert Park and Sebastopol, actually saw their populations decrease, by 3 percent and 5 percent respectively.
This is in sharp contrast to the 18 percent growth that occurred during the previous decade,when Sonoma County led the Bay Area in expanding populations. During the 1980s, the county grew by roughly a third. Overall, growth in the Bay Area and in California's coastal areas was dwarfed by the population surges in the Central Valley.
Is the slow-down here a reflection of Sonoma County's surging commitment to urban growth boundaries, open space preservation and other growth-control measures? No question. In fact, one can argue that if those growth measures weren't in place, the county's housing crisis today would be far worse. As the census figures show, the number of vacant homes in Sonoma County jumped 74 percent over the past decade. Nearly 19,000 homes were vacant as of this time last year.
But it could be worse. Overall, the number of vacant units in the state increased 55 percent, from 700,000 in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2010.
Riverside County, which saw a 37 percent increase in total housing units during the decade, now has more vacant homes (114,00) than the total number of houses and apartments in Marin County, occupied or not.
It's also true that many other factors, beyond growth control measures, have played a part in determining Sonoma County's population, not the least of which is job growth and the economy. Both ended the decade on a down note.
What's clear is that going forward, the biggest issue facing Sonoma County is not growth — it's change.
As Staff Writer Martin Espinoza reported on Wednesday, in 1990, one in 10 Sonoma County residents were Latino. Today, the number is one in four. The county added nearly 41,000 Latinos during the decade while its white population dropped by 21,659, about 6 percent. Similar changes have been occurring in Mendocino and Lake counties where roughly one in every six residents are now Latino. In 1980, it was about one in 20.
These are not just numbers on a spreadsheet. They reflect real people — neighbors, friends, family members, school children, public employees and colleagues at work. As the North Coast becomes more diverse, these changes will require new approaches to how we conduct our businesses, how we educate our children and how we grow, economically, culturally and politically.
The choices we make now in responding to these changes will determine not just how we will look in the years to come but how we will regard our quality of life.