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A commitment to restrained growth and other tenets of the sustainability ethic has earned Sonoma Valley the nation's first "Slow City" designation, a broader interpretation of the international Slow Food movement.

Envoys from the international organization Cittaslow, translated from Italian as "slow city," will travel to Sonoma in January to bestow the honor.

The city — and the rest of Sonoma Valley — becomes the first American area to be admitted to a group of 129 communities from 29 countries that subscribe to the Cittaslow philosophy, a movement that began in 1999 in Italy.

Virginia Hubbell of Sonoma, a management and growth consultant for nonprofit organizations, was the driving force behind the city seeking the accreditation.

"The idea is that a small town really has the capacity to change laws and oversee the legislation and policies they make so that the community, all of it, can really step forward and be involved in the process of building a sustainable town," Hubbell said.

"What drew me to it is the idea of connection. My dream for Cittaslow in Sonoma Valley is to have all of our citizens, everyone who lives in our valley, to feel they are connected to their town and to each other."

Prospective Cittaslow members have populations of less than 50,000 and are evaluated in 54 categories, including sustainable agricultural practices, land use and infrastructure, environmental policy, support for local food cultivation and preparation, conservation of traditional artisan products, hospitality programs, historic preservation and educational programs for all ages.

The city council and the Slow Food chapter also must support the application, which they did in Sonoma's case.

Sonoma Mayor Steve Barbose said the five-member council enthusiastically supported the designation, which extends to the Sonoma Valley community, particularly for the international partnership opportunities and tourism potential it brings.

"We are proud to be the country's first Cittaslow," he said. "Tourism is an important part of Sonoma's well-being."

According to the Cittaslow philosophy, slow cities pledge, among other things, to implement environmental policies that maintain characteristics of the surrounding area, prioritize recovery and reuse, encourage the production and use of natural foods and promote a culture rooted in tradition.

"A lot of people want to visit towns that have this sense of a quality of life, appreciation of living slow, of connection," Hubbell said.

Hugh Jones, an inn keeper at the Sonoma Hotel, said if Sonoma can garner a reputation as a place where life slows down and local foods and artisanal fare are easy to savor, then it could help boost tourism.

"I think people are tired of fast-<NO1><NO>food outlets," Jones said.

But other people wonder how practical the philosophy is, and whether being designated a "slow city" will have any real impact.

"I respect the Italian tradition a great deal," said Jim Cahoon, owner of Gramma's Pizza and Cal-Italia restaurant in Sonoma. "But this isn't Italy. We have an entirely different cultural milieu."

Norleen Kocen, a wine pourer at Roche Winery and Vineyards, is the daughter of an Italian immigrant and says she loves spending all day making a good pasta sauce, which she calls gravy. But she wonders if Americans will ever be able to slow down enough to cultivate a lifestyle like the Italians.

"In this country, it's hard not to just open up a jar of Ragu," she said.

Hubbell said the local organization, which is a nonprofit that is seeking private funding, is beginning to make partnerships with government and community organizations that share its philosophy.

"We will be .<TH>.<TH>. making some very interesting connections that focus on philanthropy," she said, "so families and children in Sonoma Valley will be connected to others in another country where they can learn about agricultural and food practices, economic development and really learn about giving back."

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