Sonoma County’s stunning rural beauty, pristine coast, charming small towns and scenic wine valleys are unique characteristics that draw visitors by the thousands. The boom in tourism has many benefits, including more jobs, increased tax revenues for the county and cities and a lively social vibrancy. But that success has also brought impacts.
Affordable housing in Wine Country has been hit hard by the tourism boom. Although tourists didn’t cause the housing crisis, tourism has exacerbated it. Residents are seeing the loss of housing stock to owners of second homes, Airbnb rentals and outside investors drawn by our local charm, who gentrify or “scrape and replace” neighborhood homes.
In Healdsburg, an affluent visitor destination, 21 mostly Hispanic families suffered mass eviction by an outside investor. Some neighborhoods are hollowed out, degenerating into a set of part-time strangers. Low-paying tourism jobs are increasing, worsening the affordable housing deficit.
The increased number of tasting rooms, with evermore intense events, raises the specter of “Napafication.” Rural residents experience traffic congestion, loss of rural character, noise and out-of-scale alcohol tourism-related development. Two-lane Highway 12 is already over capacity with traffic, especially in the northern Sonoma Valley where special events attract more than 170,000 people annually. Approved and modified permits for five facilities alone will add another 25,000 vehicle trips. Similar overconcentration occurs on Westside Road and in the Dry Creek Valley.
In Healdsburg, 37 tasting rooms are concentrated downtown, and they will pay top dollar, driving up rents to where other types of businesses have a hard time competing. For about half the year, tourism swells the population, which puts stress on public services at local taxpayer expense. Sonoma, the other plaza town, has a similar pattern. These tourist-focused towns have fewer services and less space for locals, less diverse economies and are vulnerable to boom-and-bust economic cycles. As once thriving communities become more commercialized, and their assets degrade, they lose their unique qualities, and tourists move on to more charming locations.
Solutions are at hand. Increasingly, Sonoma County is looking for ways to preserve the robust benefits of agricultural tourism, while balancing tourism with local residents’ needs and promoting a diverse economy. The Board of Supervisors directed development of zoning code amendments, siting criteria and standards for winery events to address the impacts of wine-related tourism. Supervisors have signaled that new development in areas of concentration will face greater scrutiny and guidelines to limit detrimental concentrations and impacts to rural character from business activity in the Sonoma Valley, on Westside Road and in the Dry Creek Valley. Developers have their sights on coastal areas. Luckily, county planners recently put a hold on a wine-tasting, brew pub and art venue proposal in the historic village of Freestone.
“Sustainable tourism” is also being discussed in Healdsburg and Sonoma. City and local leaders are considering how to create sustainable tourism, and the mayor of Sonoma is seeking coordination with Healdsburg on this effort. Sonoma County Conservation Action, a leader in grass-roots environmental issues, supports this collaborative approach. The process should involve broad outreach to residents, environmentalists and the lodging, wine and business sectors, and it should create specific enforceable measures that protect the carrying capacity of communities and balance the needs of tourism and residents.
Janis Watkins, a resident of Healdsburg, is a member of the board of directors of Conservation Action.