From the past, and the depths of the federal government’s files, a study has emerged reaffirming Sonoma County’s — indeed, the North Coast’s — sublimity.
Based on its climate and scenery, Sonoma County was ranked as the 20th best place to live out of 3,111 counties in the United States, while Mendocino and Humboldt counties ranked fourth and second, respectively.
The obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture report received a new wave of attention this week from the Washington Post, which delved into the intricacies of the government rankings. They are based on data from 1999 — prompting the question of whether they still hold up for a county that has seen tremendous change in the years since.
The rankings are linked to a “natural amenities index” developed by the USDA that factors in a mix of favored environmental qualities, including mild, sunny winters, temperate summers, topographic variation and access to a body of water.
This year, at least, the summer climate is slightly less temperate than in 1999, with an average July daytime high temperature of 83 degrees compared to 78 degrees in 1999. But the winter climate this January was 63 degrees, more temperate than the average daytime high of 57 degrees in January 1999.
However, the rankings don’t take into account population growth, traffic, commute times, housing prices, access to health care and other quality-of-life markers.
While the recognition may have considerable dust on it, residents of the region said the honor should still stand.
“It is still a beautiful place to live,” said Mela Angleman, a longtime Bodega resident.
Think, she said, of what famed horticulturist Luther Burbank wrote to his mother upon arriving in Sonoma County in 1875: “I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.”
“I feel that is still true,” said Angleman, a sixth-generation county resident.
Nature and geology, of course, have endowed the region with much of what was prized in the government snapshot of 16 years ago.
But human efforts to protect the landscape and water bodies have also played a significant role in its sustained beauty, said Victoria Brandon, chairwoman of the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club.
She noted the recent expansion of the two federal marine sanctuaries off the Sonoma and Mendocino coast — putting more of the region permanently off-limits to oil drilling — and the sale of nearly 20,000 acres once known as Preservation Ranch near the Sonoma-Mendocino border to conservation groups. The acquisition was a landmark deal for the taxpayer-supported Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District — one of the few entities of its kind in the state — and its private partners, including the Sonoma Land Trust.
“I certainly agree this is a wonderful place and we’ve got a lot to preserve and celebrate,” said Brandon, a resident of Lake County, which ranked 43rd in the USDA report.
On the other hand, commercial and residential development have encroached on the natural surroundings, she said, and “Sonoma County is not as much of a real rural area as it was.”
Sonoma County has added 46,871 people since 1999 — bringing the population to 500,292 — with most growth occurring in urban areas or at their edge. The county was the first in the nation to ring all of its cities with growth boundaries that limit sprawl. Those restraints have been regarded in a different light of late, however, as the county contends with a serious housing crunch exemplified by skyrocketing rents.