Amid housing crunch, push to renew Sonoma County’s greenbelt protections fans debate
Right outside city boundaries, more than 17,000 acres of land in Sonoma County has been put off limits to most development for more than a quarter-century to reduce sprawl, protect farmland and natural habitat and provide some scenic buffer between urban areas that most county residents call home.
But some of the curbs that established those so-called community separators, first adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1989 and strengthened by two voter-approved ballot measures in the late 1990s, are set to expire at the end of next year. Their enactment decades ago marked a key win for the county's environmental movement, with current leaders making it a top priority to see the protections renewed.
So far, however, they haven't had the reception they'd hoped for from the Board of Supervisors, which has balked at fully endorsing an extension at the ballot box in 2016. The issue could become a key one in races for three board seats up for election next year.
Teri Shore, the North Bay's director for the Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group spearheading the campaign, said a September poll shows that there is widespread public support for extending the protections indefinitely. They currently exist outside most cities and towns in the county, except for Cloverdale and Penngrove, where supporters hope to enact new limits.
Waffling by supervisors could undermine the protections, Shore said.
'Without the voter-backed initiatives, the community separators are weaker and at risk of being developed because supervisors could easily change them,' Shore said. 'These are important, major protections that shield open space and agricultural lands from development, and they keep Sonoma County from sprawling from city to city like you see in other parts of the Bay Area or Los Angeles.'
The issue is re-emerging as housing costs in the county continue to escalate, putting pressure on elected leaders to fast-track construction of units, especially for working- and middle-class families.
Critics say the land-use limits trample on the rights of property owners subject to the rules and that the renewed push by environmentalists attempts to solve a problem that doesn't exist in Sonoma County.
'I want to preserve Sonoma County for our future generations, not pave over our paradise,' said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group. 'But there are already protections in place that preserve our natural beauty and rural heritage. Sprawl coming here is a 20-year-old argument, and all they're doing is just dusting it off when we should really be focusing on what to do to get out of this housing crisis.'
Shore and other advocates for community separators counter that such voter-backed limits are needed to ensure local governments don't carve off parts of the greenbelt to builders on a case-by-case basis.
'These are real pressures that we've seen historically with residential and commercial development, so we need to provide stable, consistent protections against those pressures,' said Noreen Evans, a former state senator and Santa Rosa councilwoman who is on the Greenbelt Alliance board. 'Historically, this has been the tug and pull in Sonoma County — we like economic growth and we like a strong economy, but we also like our open space and our farmlands. That has always been one of the challenges here, how to balance a strong economy and preservation of open space.'
A Greenbelt Alliance-commissioned poll of 400 likely voters last month suggested that three-quarters of the respondents would support expanding the community separators around Penngrove and in between Healdsburg and Cloverdale. Two-thirds of the people also said they would view their supervisor more favorably if they opt to put such a measure on the November 2016 ballot, according to data from the polling firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maulin, Metz & Associates.
There are early signs the issue could factor in supervisorial races next year, with environmental organizations, real estate interests and construction groups — major financial backers of candidates running for local public office — weighing in with what they'd like to see from the county.
The two supervisors who've already kicked off their re-election bids, Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, comprise the board's liberal voting bloc, with backing from environmental groups who favor stronger land-use limits to protect open space.
Efren Carrillo holds the other seat up for election next year, and he has not yet said whether he intends to run. Carrillo, David Rabbitt and James Gore make up the board's more centrist voting bloc, which can show greater deference to builders and farming interests in crafting land-use regulations.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: