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Rohnert Park neighbors balk at farm plan for open space near Taylor Mountain

From their second-floor master bedroom, Mark Gomes and his wife have a magnificent view of grasslands and small farms spreading north of Rohnert Park toward Taylor Mountain.

The view was a major selling point when the couple purchased the 2,800-square-foot home almost four years ago. But they now fear that scene will be marred if Sonoma County officials move forward with putting an instructional farm on a vacant parcel behind the house.

“Now, we’re going to be looking at a starter farm and a lot of people,” Mark Gomes, a retired plumber, said Tuesday morning while standing in his driveway.

The couple have joined forces with a number of their neighbors to push back against the farm plans. County open space advocates and agricultural interests, with the backing of Supervisor Shirlee Zane, have honed in on the 45-acre parcel as the potential site where budding farmers and ranchers could acquire skills that they could then parlay into careers growing produce or raising livestock.

County residents tend to look favorably on small-scale agricultural pursuits and locally grown or sourced food. They also have backed tax measures aimed at protecting land from unwanted development. The parcel eyed by supporters of the incubator farm is situated on a community separator, a buffer outside city boundaries created by a voter-backed initiative.

But those goals can get sidetracked by land-use battles. Zane, who has waded through her share of such skirmishes, lamented what she said is a pattern of intimidation on the part of those who are opposed to the farm.

“The dialogue has not been respectful and that’s unfortunate,” the supervisor said.

She alluded in particular to Joe Netter, a former Rohnert Park city manager whose home in the Park Estates subdivision backs up to the parcel. Netter has helped organize his neighbors against the county’s proposal. But he disputed the notion that he or other opponents of the plans have engaged in unfair tactics.

He said many neighbors feel “passionate” about the issue because when they purchased their homes, they did so with the understanding the vacant parcel would remain in its “natural state.” Netter, who said he’s gathered 125 signatures for a petition urging officials to choose an alternate site for the farm, said opponents are not against the concept.

“We love farming. We love the idea of being innovative,” he said. “However, we feel it (the incubator farm) is too close to a residential subdivision.”

The county’s original plan for farming on the site called for installing greenhouses, row crops such as strawberries and tomatoes, and livestock grazing. Officials said about a third of the 45-acre parcel has been deemed suitable for farming. They say the rest could potentially be devoted to restoring critical habitat, including for the endangered California tiger salamander.

“If we could demonstrate that farming, ranching and critical habitat could co-exist, what a positive example it could set for other lands in (similar states),” said Stephanie Larson, director of the UC Cooperative Extension for Sonoma County.

Opponents, however, cite a number of concerns with the project, including that it could result in development on land intended as open space and exacerbate problems with the homeless and crime along a paved walking trail adjacent to the vacant parcel. At the Snyder Lane trailhead Tuesday, a handwritten sign pleaded for the return of a purse that was stolen from a car parked there Sunday.

Opponents also question whether the farm would conform with zoning laws and those governing community separators.

“Can we spend public funds to create an incubator farm on open space land that was approved as a community separator to protect vistas?” Netter said.

The land was purchased in 1997 by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to serve as a greenbelt. County staff summarized the intent of the purchase as protecting a scenic vista and to protect an agricultural property from subdivision and development. The resolution approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors stated that if the property were to be sold, officials should seek a conservation easement over the property dedicated for open space, recreational or agricultural purposes in perpetuity.

County officials now say an incubator farm would be consistent with the board’s original intent and fall within current zoning guidelines for ag land. A farm also would meet standards for acreage designated as community separators, according to Tennis Wick, director of the Permit and Resource Management Department.

“The idea that there can be no structures or no agricultural activity in a community separator is incorrect,” he said.

Wick said the rules prevent a property owner from increasing the density or intensity of the use. So long as those criteria are met, and what’s being proposed is consistent with the property’s zoning, a project can move forward, albeit subject to design review of structures that are not otherwise exempt from the rules.

The Open Space District, which currently oversees minimal upkeep of the parcel, is seeking to sell it.

“Owning the land is not a great idea because it’s very expensive long term,” said Sheri Emerson, the district’s stewardship manager.

She outlined one scenario in which the district could enter into a lease-to-own agreement with a nonprofit group that would operate a farm. Other organizations would develop specific programs. The agency has spent about $50,000 on feasibility studies.

Emerson stressed that no final decisions have been made, and that planners are seriously weighing feedback from neighbors. She cited as one example planners dropping an idea for a raised viewing platform overlooking the farm, out of concern it could block views.

“It’s not a necessary component at all,” she said of the platform.

Zane, who helped spearhead the concept of incubator farms in Sonoma County, vowed to push ahead with the project near Rohnert Park.

“Just because a handful of angry people, and one neighbor in particular, have come forward, I don’t see a need necessarily to abandon two years of work,” she said.

She said the county will vet “legitimate” concerns, one of which she identified as the impact a farm might have on existing water supplies.

At Netter’s urging, the Rohnert Park City Council scheduled a discussion on the topic at its March 8 meeting. City leaders could take a stand in the form of a letter sent to county supervisors, who are expected to decide the issue later this year.

“Clearly, it’s an extremely contentious issue,” said Jake Mackenzie, Rohnert Park’s vice mayor and chairman of the public policy committee for the Greenbelt Alliance.

He said he’s not opposed to the farm. But he acknowledged that many in the neighborhood are opposed to the project.

“The neighbors are very straightforward. They don’t want any change. To me, it’s a matter of degree,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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