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PD Editorial: Keeping green space around communities

Beginning in the 1990s, voters in each of Sonoma County’s nine cities enacted urban growth boundaries as a shield against urban sprawl.

To ensure that development in unincorporated areas of the county didn’t encroach on the cities, voters also endorsed community separators.

These greenbelts, farms and large residential properties are scenic buffers along the busy Highway 101 and Highway 12 corridors that enable each community to retain a distinct identity.

Or, to put it less charitably, sparing Sonoma County from the fate of Santa Clara County.

Over the past year, county planners revisited the separators, recommending additions and subtractions that could add 45,000 acres, much of it already zoned for limited development, to the 17,000 acres now designated as community separators.

Their proposal goes to the Board of Supervisors on July 19, and if it’s approved, voters will be asked to fortify it in November by requiring an election to ratify any future contraction.

Sonoma County voters twice backed community separator measures by huge margins in the late 1990s.

You can gauge the results in the open space surrounding local communities.

Sonoma County, which adopted a philosophy of city-centered growth a generation ago, has largely spared itself from the kind of uncontrolled sprawl that swallows communities in waves of subdivisions and shopping centers, while fueling traffic congestion, air pollution and energy consumption.

The case for renewing the community separator protections is strong.

Still, the supervisors should give careful scrutiny to such a large expansion. The existing mix of urban growth boundaries and community separators has served the county well, but there are opportunity costs to placing restrictions on the use of privately owned land.

Sonoma County, like much of the state, is experiencing an acute shortage of affordable housing and coping with the human misery that comes with homelessness. Tightening restrictions on land use could push housing costs even higher.

In addition, much of the work on the proposed expansions was completed before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that 15,000 acres in the Santa Rosa Plain should be set aside over 50 years as habitat for California tiger salamanders and three wildflowers, Sonoma sunshine, Sebastopol meadow foam and Burke’s goldfields - all endangered species that rely on seasonal wetlands for survival.

Are there opportunities to combine habitat protection and greenbelts that should be explored?

Teri Shore, the regional director for Greenbelt Alliance, a leading supporter of the expansion plan, points out that more than 10,000 units of new housing have been approved but have yet to be built in unincorporated Sonoma County and the nine cities.

Their construction isn’t dependent on the outcome of the community separator vote.

But some of the proposed additions would push the boundaries farther from major thoroughfares and city limits. Some affected property owners have raised concerns, and the supervisors should consider their objections before making a final decision.

You can see maps of the proposed separators at www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/community_separators/index.htm

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