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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.

“There are real challenges in housing — there’s never enough housing — and in the cost of living in the Bay Area … particularly if you’re new to the area and you’re making an average income,” said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

“But I feel the best measure of quality of life is that a lot of people want to live here,” Stone said, adding that highway travel and air service have improved and that “our natural beauty has only increased.”

The index, which does not include Alaska and Hawaii (perhaps skewing the results), hasn’t been updated. Ventura County topped the list.

“It’s in the Beach Boys’ song ‘Ventura County Line,’ ” Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer at the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, said when asked what he thought of that.

More seriously, he said, “I think Sonoma County is a fantastic place to live and visit because we do have an amazing diversity of things to see and do here.”

What’s the likelihood of the rankings changing over the past 16 years?

“Man, I don’t even know if that’s really a statistical question,” said Ben Ford, a Sonoma State University mathematics professor and a county resident since 1998.

“If it hasn’t changed much, it’s unlikely to have gone down much,” he said, adding that, in terms of Sonoma County, “you could argue that things like the county parks have added something to the publicly accessible natural places.”

Indeed, the principle reason the USDA hasn’t updated the study is that the criteria it used are unlikely to have changed much, wrote Christopher Ingraham, the Washington Post reporter who unearthed the report and wrote about it Monday on the Post’s Wonkblog.

“These ‘natural aspects of attractiveness,’ as the USDA describes them, are intended to be constant and relatively immutable,” Ingraham wrote.

Other pressures persist.

“Traffic is definitely getting worse, and public transportation is definitely lacking,” said Douglas Jimenez, a family practice doctor in Santa Rosa who moved to San Francisco in 1999.

Housing is also far less affordable, he and Angleman pointed out.

“It saddens me that it’s more difficult for people to afford to live here and enjoy the beauty that is here, and to make a living,” Angleman said.

And yet.

“I’ll tell you this,” Jimenez said. “I’ve lived all over the Bay Area — Santa Cruz, the South Bay, Gilroy, San Francisco — and this is where I chose to settle.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay.