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.

by Angela Hart

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.

Two other potential 5th District candidates — Evans and Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the largest local environmental group — both endorsed extending current community separators next year and expanding them where possible.

Rue Furch, a longtime environmental advocate and former county planning commissioner who also is considering a bid for the 5th District seat, has staked out a similar position supporting community separators.

But some representatives of the county’s influential building and real estate industry argue that urban growth boundaries — companion measures to the county’s community separators adopted by each of the nine cities — already restrict sprawl and prohibit development outside city borders.

“Elected officials have already committed to city-centered growth,” said Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors in Sonoma County.

Others take issue with extending the protections indefinitely, saying the county must do its part to ensure land is available to house the region’s growing population.

“If the county goes forward with this draconian idea and removes the sunset clause, it’s going to have all kinds of unintended consequences for working people and future generations,” said Woods, the North Coast Builders Exchange CEO. “We’ll make it even more difficult to build any housing, and we’re going to create one giant gated community where we say we’re allowed to live here, but our future generations can’t get in.”

Woods and others pointed to a number of housing trends worrying local officials, including rising rents, low vacancy rates and the relatively low number of housing units built in the past decade.

Countywide, one-third of the housing units permitted since 2007 actually came to fruition by the end of 2014, or 5,242 units built out of a total 15,300 permitted, according to county data.

Rosatti said there is room to both expand open space protections and build housing in existing city boundaries.

“We can have great communities in downtowns where people can walk and bike or ride the train, and live in places with new housing and access to services,” he said. “But we can’t wait on the community separators; I see risks going into an election year.”

Supporters said they had not ruled out pushing their own ballot initiative, a step they acknowledged would be costly and carry greater political risk.

Gorin, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman, suggested it was unlikely the county would move forward with a ballot initiative next year.

“Some of the community separator provisions are expiring, but that is not the end of the line,” Gorin said. “I’m very supportive of reauthorization of the community separators, but I remain dubious that we need to do it next year.”

Gorin said the board could opt for a simple ballot measure that extends current ordinances, but any expansion would take significant time and staff resources that are already consumed with drafting potential new regulations on winery events and vacation rentals — issues the board is set to vote on later this year.

County planners would have to conduct painstaking technical studies of lands that would be incorporated under a future proposal, and the county would have to do significant community outreach.

“The question is does it make sense to move forward, or wait and do a more robust campaign?” Gorin said.

Rabbitt, who is vice president of the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning agency, said that the matter is not urgent.

“We’ve already truly committed to city-centered growth with our urban growth boundaries,” Rabbitt said. “And I’d have concerns about looking at those properties that could be included in community separators if they are expanded. If those properties are stripped of their assets, it could be considered a taking if it was done under the wrong circumstances.”

This article was originally published by The Press Democrat.

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