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This week we have the chance to advance the most important greenbelt policy protections in Sonoma County in decades.

On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will vote on renewing voter protections for community separators with a ballot measure in the general election. The supervisors also will decide whether to designate additional lands as community separators. The goal is to protect rural lands, farms and green buffers between our towns and cities from potential conversion to housing tracts, resort hotels and strip malls.

The community separators are companion measures to the city’s nine urban growth boundaries. Together, these policies form the backbone of Sonoma County’s longstanding city-centered growth policies. For more than two decades, community separators and urban growth boundaries have prevented Sonoma County from looking like Silicon Valley.

We can maintain and build on this legacy by renewing community separators while also focusing our future housing needs in our cities and communities and especially along the SMART rail line. We don’t need to build in our greenbelts now or ever.

After 20 years, voter protections for community separators are set to expire this year, so the county of Sonoma is proposing to renew them for another 30 years and to add designations to lands that remain at risk of inappropriate development.

The proposed community separator additions would designate additional acres of green buffers and farm lands from subdivision and sprawl.

The purpose of community separators is three-fold: They serve as green buffers between cities and towns, contain urban development and preserve the rural charm of our landscape.

Community separators serve an important role by inhibiting land speculation and the conversion of rural and ag lands into housing subdivisions, resort hotels and shopping malls. You’d need a general plan amendment and a vote of the people to allow this type of development in the community separators.

Community separators are not a land-use designation but an additional zoning overlay. The designation does not restrict property owners or stop development, whether it is for a vineyard, winery, stable or dairy. So farmers can still build a barn, and a family can build a house or add a granny unit as currently allowed, with design review.

Preserving our rural ag heritage and greenbelts also makes sense economically. The recent Urban3-Smart Towns value-per-acre analysis for the city of Santa Rosa revealed the economic potency and value of investing in our downtowns and existing neighborhoods instead of growing outward. Additionally the data show that Santa Rosa alone has a tremendous supply of land within its growth boundaries that is vacant or underutilized. Addressing affordability by expanding the periphery brings a host of other problems and creates expensive new infrastructure that becomes a liability for future generations.

Greenbelt Alliance and Urban Community Partnership are working to support the renewal of community separators and designate priority lands as proposed. We are also joining forces to advocate for the right development in the right places in our towns and cities and along the SMART line. Greenbelt Alliance is rolling out its smart growth endorsement program across the Bay Area to help get good projects built. Urban Community Partnership is bringing back Urban 3 to take a look at the comparative value of transit-oriented developments across the county. Between us, we can make a strong case for protecting our green spaces while creating thriving places for us all to live and work.

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