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Sonoma County supervisors endorse voter decision on open space buffers

Amid rising rents throughout the North Bay and mounting pressure to build new housing, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday said they will seek a ballot initiative next year extending open space protections on 17,000 acres in between urban areas to fend off potential large-scale development.

Supervisors approved spending up to $240,000 to ask voters in November 2016 to extend key safeguards on so-called community separators that create undeveloped buffer zones outside city boundaries. The move comes after a year of intense lobbying from local environmental advocates who pressed supervisors to seek renewal next year. They contend the measure is critical because two ballot measures approved in the late 1990s - roughly a decade after supervisors created the land use protections - are set to expire.

“We do believe our lands are at risk,” said Teri Shore, North Bay director of the Greenbelt Alliance, the environmental group spearheading the campaign. “Development pressure is increasing as the economy grows. Now is the time.”

Supervisors decided unanimously to put the decision in voters’ hands next year, acknowledging that without them, county open space and farmland could be at risk of being swallowed up by surrounding cities or towns and converted into multi-unit housing and commercial developments. They said, however, the county and its nine cities have committed to steering growth into city centers.

“It’s clear that there is enormous need in our communities for affordable housing, and people are finding it extremely challenging to continue to live here,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin. “But I think we can contain that growth in urban areas … community separators help define who we are, and they’ll help preserve and protect our natural areas into the future.”

At present, most development proposals that fall into community separator zones require voter approval - a hurdle adopted through the pair of ballot measures nearly two decades ago. Some development is allowed in the areas, which fall under county jurisdiction as they are outside city limits.

County zoning laws allow one housing unit per every 10 acres in community separators. Some commercial development, including wineries and tasting rooms, is allowed if it promotes agricultural products grown in Sonoma County, according to county planning officials.

Some local government officials and the North Bay Association of Realtors, a prominent real estate trade group, dispute the claim that the protected areas are at risk of being developed. Many pointed out that each of Sonoma County’s nine cities have enacted companion measures called urban growth boundaries that restrict urban sprawl.

Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, chairman of the public policy committee for Greenbelt Alliance and a staunch supporter of environmental protections, argued that the county can both enhance greenbelts outside city limits and build new housing to absorb population growth, while helping to ease the soaring cost of housing.

He dismissed the idea, posed by detractors, that “you can’t be doing this sort of thing with community separators and urban growth boundaries because we’re not going to provide housing,” Mackenzie told supervisors. “I believe that we can.”

Environmental advocates applauded supervisors for going forward with the ballot initiative, but some argued their proposal will not sufficiently shield open space from development.

“I would have liked to see them expand protections,” said Rue Furch, a former county planning commissioner who is eying a bid for the 5th District supervisor seat held by Efren Carrillo. “We need to include more unincorporated areas.”

Eric Koenigshofer, an attorney and former county supervisor who also is considering running for the 5th District post, said the county should include more lands to help protect the distinct character of small towns outside city limits.

“The time has come now … to introduce other communities into those areas,” said Koenigshofer. He suggested areas currently not covered by the protections in between Sebastopol and Graton and between Graton and Forestville.

Supervisors expressed support for expanding community separators, but balked at including an additional 22,000 acres in the ballot proposal. Instead, they are seeking to expand them through a general plan amendment. That process would require a simple majority vote of the Board of Supervisors, and not voter approval.

The board chose to advance ballot measures that are tied to the lapse date of cities’ urban growth boundaries - an approach that would not set a standard timeframe, and one that environmental advocates said fell short. They pushed for a 30-year horizon.

Under the board’s approach, as the city protections expire, should they not be extended, the safeguards requiring voter approval for most development within adjacent community separators also would dissolve.

Urban growth boundaries are set to expire at various times over the next 20 years. Windsor’s expires in 2017 and Cotati’s in 2018, for example, but Santa Rosa recently updated its protections, extending the limits through 2035. As they expire, cities could choose to expand their boundaries to build, said Jennifer Barrett, deputy planning director for the Permit and Resource Management Department.

“Cities could grow,” Barrett said.

Supervisors are expected to decide on specific ballot measure language in April.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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