Undulating hills decorated with oaks, evergreen forests, peridot-colored vineyards, abundant farmland. Sonoma County looks so gorgeous that sometimes it seems like a movie set. Behind Shangri-la, however, are real decisions—those shades of green sprout from city halls and county seats as much as they stem from fertile soil, for this is where the visions for development are set—in the Sonoma County General Plan.
In General, It’s Good
This state-mandated “blueprint for growth” is currently undergoing an update from its 1989 incarnation, which was itself a revision of the county’s first Plan, drawn up in 1978. “The original general plan was visionary. It really concentrated on city-centered growth and worked on preserving farmland,” says Elizabeth Stampe, communications director for Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit that works to protect open space and create “livable” cities in the Bay Area. Both Greenbelt Alliance and a citizens’ advisory committee have been advising the county during the ongoing planning process for the current update.
While acknowledging the first plan’s focus on conservation and applauding the more specific and stronger 1989 update, Stampe is most concerned about intensifying growth pressures on the largely agricultural county. “Sonoma County is going to add 130,000 people to its population in the next 20 years, which is like a city the size of Santa Rosa,” she says. “What that will mean depends on how the county’s General Plan is updated. If it’s done well, all that new growth can be accommodated without paving over the farms and natural areas. Otherwise the county will be in for a rough time. It could have worse traffic, lost forests and farms, and serious water problems.”
The Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), a group of 15 residents hand-picked by the Board of Supervisors, has spent over two years publicly debating options regarding growth-related issues, among them forest conversion to vineyards, water resources, and community separators, designated greenbelts between urban areas designed to prevent sprawl. The group’s Sonoma County General Plan 2020 draft was completed last October.
Scott Briggs, Sonoma County’s environmental review manager, has spent a decade on the planning commission. He was at every CAC hearing, which numbered, he estimates, around 150 meetings. He says the update, which is required by state law, is more of a “policy audit” than a drastic reworking of the county’s development philosophy. Briggs said the Board of Supervisors was not legally required to assemble a CAC. “It could literally have been a staff-generated, behind-closed-doors effort to come up with changes and then have that brought to the public,” he says. “Our board wanted the deliberation process to be completely open.”
Briggs says the plan really works: “Any discretionary project that comes through to the decision-makers we have to look at for consistency with our General Plan.” Though Briggs noted the board could consider amendments to the plan up to four times a year, he says changes can be made only through a formal and complicated process.
Greenbelt Alliance members were relieved the draft plan did not include major land use designation changes. But Greenbelt members think the plan could go further, and they’ve written an advisory of 21 pages of recommendations on five key elements: preserving open space, protecting farmlands and local agriculture, managing water resources, building affordable housing, and improving transportation networks.
Kelly Brown, Greenbelt’s Sonoma-Marin field representative, says the recommendations are a tool to help “decipher this behemoth of a document.” The Web version of CAC’s draft is 349 pages.
“That’s the value of this report,” Brown says. “It really puts it in language and terms the average person can understand, and I feel that will be a galvanizing force. We’re really effective at mobilizing grassroots pressure.”
The Plan Behind The Plan
Greenbelt’s recommendations are just that: suggestions to influence the next phase of updating the plan. There is still ample occasion to voice opposition or support or, as Greenbelt hopes, urge stronger protections for open space and keeping growth restricted to cities and towns—CAC’s draft is the beginning of a three-part process to create the polished General Plan that will guide the county’s growth for the next fifteen years.
The planning commission is now working with a consultant team to perform EIRs for a range of policy options—both those favored by CAC as well as the options they did not consider. An analysis of the full spectrum of environmental possibilities is necessary, as the board may end up preferring options other than those recommended by CAC.
After the draft EIR is released later this spring, there will be a 45-day public comment period during which the planning commission will hold a public hearing. Briggs says, “That’s the next key opportunity—the planning commission will take all public comments on any concerns people have with the draft policy as written by CAC.”
During the preparation of the final EIR, the planning commission will hold a series of seven to ten more hearings on each element (including the five identified by Greenbelt as well as others such as noise ordinances). Finally, at the end of this year, the draft, the final EIR, and the commission’s formal recommendation will go to the board, which will hold more public hearings before certifying the final EIR and adopting the General Plan.
Stampe says the ’89 plan was so successful that she’s worried about complacency. We could, she says, “look around and say, ‘Look—it’s been 20, 25 years and our county is still rural and beautiful and full of forests and vineyards and we’re fine.’ And not see, ‘Okay, well, we’re fine now, but an additional 130,000 people are going to live in Sonoma County by 2025, and where are we going to put them?'”
Though both Briggs and Greenbelt agree that the recommendations to the draft are not radical—Briggs went so far as to say they’re mostly statements of support——Greenbelt cites increasing examples of the county making exceptions for development projects and deviating from the plan’s guidelines on growth.
Last fall, the board amended the plan to allow for an approximately 475-acre commercial development, the Sonoma Country Inn, to be built in a community separator in Sonoma Valley. Briggs says this was an instance of the county using the flexibility built into the plan to take proposals on a case-by-case basis, even though he says he realizes that making amendments may appear to be violations of the outlined vision.
Brown was opposed to permitting what she describes as “a very large commercial winery-slash-resort-slash-bar-slash-restaurant-slash-upscale-housing-development.”
“We would like to see the county explore creating community separators in areas where they aren’t,” she says. “But we also need to enforce those protections.”
Waste Woes and Water Logs
Yet chastising the county for failing to stick to its blueprint is not the only reason the update is crucial to Greenbelt Alliance. Stampe explains that there are new situations not addressed in the 1989 plan simply because, at that time, they did not exist.
For instance, she says, proposals are increasing for package treatment plants (PTPs), a fallback sewage treatment technology where septic systems are not feasible. These plants would service new rural development, including wineries and hotels.
“Package treatment plants are threatening to open up thousands and thousands of acres of Sonoma County farmland to development,” she says, arguing that the issue is primarily a matter of adhering to the plan—or not. “What we’re worried about is that the county is forgetting that they drew up the General Plan to guide where growth should and shouldn’t go. Instead they’re allowing wastewater treatment capability to guide where growth goes.”
In its recommendations, Greenbelt highlights projects such as the Sears Point Raceway and the Rodney Strong Winery as cases where the Board permitted PTPs. Of the 20,000 parcels of land in the entire county, the report figures, 17,000 could be potentially developed if PTPs are given a green flag. CAC chose the least restrictive of four policy options, recommending that PTPs be permitted for single-owner uses.
Briggs says that CAC members felt the update was not the best opportunity to dictate a decision on PTPs. “They felt it should be a much more public process,” he says.
The CAC recommended the creation of a Water Resources Element that would study the county’s watershed and resources. Greenbelt celebrates this as a “positive first step,” considering the county does not have a groundwater management plan even though it issues 500 new well permits annually.
The Other Ten Percent
Referred to as “the Sage” by Briggs, Dan Fein, a member of CAC, is well-versed on all facets of the update elements. Considering the whole scope of what their recommendations imply for the future, Fein wrote in an email: “I think that the theme of the General Plan to concentrate development within cities and around transportation hubs will ultimately mean that cities will have to build higher and that the edges of the urban areas will become more starkly defined. I wish that this scenario were not going to be the case, but I prefer it to the sprawl that would no doubt result without strong urban growth boundaries.”
Fein is aware of mighty influences poised to threaten protections against uncontrolled growth. Like Greenbelt, he stresses the necessity of sticking to the plan. “I’m concerned that the economic forces in play will require great diligence and fortitude by county planners to enforce the greenbelts and resist development in them.”
The pressure to “develop,” in the sense of expansion—buildings, asphalt, vineyards—is as immense as ever. How does Greenbelt, then, manage to promote further land protections in the face of a population influx and its accompanying infrastructure?
Brown describes the process of crafting the recommendations as a balancing act: “It’s about what’s realistic, but yet being visionary and not compromising any of your long-term goals. It would have been banging our head against a wall to bring up outside issues, such as we would like to see urban growth boundaries throughout the ten or fifteen unincorporated towns in the county.”
Brown predicts there will be resistance to expanding community separators, but she has faith in the county’s environmentally minded constituency. “It’s pretty consistent to what people hold dear in Sonoma County,” she says, “so there’s a real opportunity to generate pressure on that one.”
Though he agrees with Brown, Briggs often uses the word “flexibility” when describing the board’s relationship to the plan. Pondering the final update, he says, “I think what you’ll see is that something like 90 percent of this revised General Plan is just going to fly through the board like a knife through butter: It’s better; it’s not controversial; it does a better job than what the plan did before.”
And the other ten percent? “Then there will be a lot of screaming, fighting, pulling, pushing—how far do we go with water, and what about those package treatment plants?”