Championing the Bay Area with True Highlander Spirit
Jake Mackenzie knows a thing or two about standing strong. Whether herding sheep as a boy on his Scottish family croft, or responding to a tough crowd at a regional planning hearing, Jake is a man who doesn’t stand down. True to his convictions and a natural leader, Jake is known in the North Bay and beyond as a steward of smart city planning and a voice many seek when it comes to local and regional government. And we could not be prouder to honor him with this year’s Greenbelt Alliance Champion Award.
To understand Jake’s strength of character, you have to look toward his upbringing. Jake grew up in Scotland, where generations of his family herded sheep and lived on the land. Although he grew up as a city kid in Edinburgh, his family spent summers at the Highland croft, establishing his lifelong interest in agriculture and the relationship forged between humans and the land.
Jake fell in love with American jazz music as a teenager, and much to his parents’ chagrin, began wearing pegged pants and “Slim Jim” ties, developing a deep desire to come to the United States. After arriving in the US on the Queen Mary in 1962 he drove solo across the country in a beat-up Chevy station wagon with bald tires. Even at 22 years old, Jake was a man of determination. He had $200 in his pocket and a scholarship to study for his master’s degree at Oregon State University. Early days at OSU included his first elected office: President of his residence hall. He then helped establish a rugby team, of which he became the captain. On a beautiful sunny weekend in February 1964, he led his team in a rugby match at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium. He remembers clearly being inspired by what a magical place this was.
Jake has shown his commitment to our region with his heart, soul, and mind. And with the style of a Highlander.
– Anne Halsted, Greenbelt Alliance Board of Directors
Jake had the great blessing of several mentors at OSU, and learned not only the gift of public speaking, but lessons in the power of leadership and perseverance. After earning his master’s degree, he worked for several years at Chevron Chemical Company, then returned to OSU for a PhD in pesticide research and development. With PhD in hand, Jake enjoyed two years of international work based in Switzerland, after which he became one of the early hires in the Environmental Protection Agency, and relocated to the Bay Area in 1972. For three decades, Jake was a pesticide regulator, including a stint in Jerry Brown’s first administration as Director of California’s Pesticide Programs.
Following a two-year assignment at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC, Jake returned to the Bay Area and in 1984 met his wife Barbara. In 1991, during a period of significant debate over growth issues, Jake got his first taste of local political activism with Sonoma County Transportation and Land-use Coalition.
In 1993, Jake and Barbara met with Owen Byrd, Greenbelt Alliance’s policy director at the time. Owen was organizing the first urban growth boundary (UGB) campaigns in Sonoma County. Creating action groups in each of the nine cities in the county, Owen asked Jake and Barbara to lead the Rohnert Park campaign. “The idea was that each city would have its own boundary,” Jake explains.
Everyone knows Jake as a champion of the Greenbelt, a stalwart voice for the environment and the North Bay’s emissary into the morass of Bay Area transportation politics. I’ve watched his work in this century and the last one from different perspectives—as a newspaper reporter and columnist, as a staffer on the SMART train project, as a fellow mayor in Sonoma County and through all that time as a friend. And I can tell you that as much as he is admired…he is recognized as a standout, stand-up guy in all those other places, too—particularly the last.
– Chris Coursey, former Mayor of Santa Rosa
It was a contentious time regarding growth in Rohnert Park. “We were the first people who dared to utter the phrase ‘urban growth boundary’ as we made a joint public comment before a rather hostile Rohnert Park City Council. The idea of drawing a line where cities can and can’t build was not popular at the time,” he recalls.
Jake and Barbara, a few other activists, and Greenbelt Alliance put together a campaign for a four-year UGB in 1996. Jake ran for a seat on the Rohnert Park City Council at the same time. Both campaigns were successful and shortly thereafter, the tide was truly turned in Sonoma County as nine urban growth boundaries were voter-approved and enacted throughout the county.
Those very boundaries are responsible for much of the remaining natural land in Sonoma County—a globally recognized area where agriculture, natural lands, and vibrant cities coexist. Coincidentally, Rohnert Park’s current UGB is now up for renewal in a special election on November 5, 2019. Once again, Jake is leading the charge to ensure this critical boundary is renewed for another 20 years.
The thing I’ve always most admired and appreciated about Jake is that he does the work. He knows the policy, the history, the politics and the people on so many issues—water, transportation, land use, climate—and he uses that knowledge base to bring others along and to advance his own priorities. He’s accessible and funny and he is not at all shy.
– Suzanne Smith, Sonoma County Transportation Authority & Regional Climate Protection Authority
Jake’s career in politics has been long-standing and hard-fought. He has served as Mayor of Rohnert Park for five terms and City Council for 23 years, the second-longest run of any current official in the area. Jake has been a leader in water policy and chaired the North Coast Regional Partnership, a seven-county coalition for distributing state water grants. He has a long record of achievement in transportation, serving and chairing the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
With his leadership in 2008, the Regional Climate Protection Authority was formed and recognized by the White House under President Obama. Jake has also just concluded a two-year term as Chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which included the adoption of the CASA compact under his leadership. Involved with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit from the beginning, he worked to pass the tax measure to fund it and then served on the governing board for 17 years during planning, construction and passenger service opening. And among other leadership roles, Jake is proud of his long service on the board of the Local Government Commission in Sacramento.
Jake led the North Coast Resource Partnership with his typical grace, diplomacy, firm hand, intelligence and excellent meeting facilitation skills. Under his leadership, the region received over $65 million in funding for critical enhancements to infrastructure and watershed and forest health.
– Karen Gaffney, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District
About 12 years ago, then CEO of Greenbelt Alliance Tom Steinbach recruited Jake to join the organization’s Board of Directors. In true Jake fashion, he has championed our mission—to shape the rules that govern growth, to protect the region’s open spaces, and to ensure that neighborhoods within our cities and towns are amazing places for everyone. Jake chaired our Public Policy Committee for 10 years, a decade of major growth and development issues throughout the Bay Area.
From Sonoma County UGBs early in his political career to supporting significant land protections, like expanding community separators throughout the county in 2016, Jake has maintained his commitment to preserving natural lands. Beyond Jake’s open space contributions, he has also pushed the region to stand strong in its fight for climate resilience, affordable homes, and smart growth development.
“After a quarter of a century working in local politics and regional government, I’ve found that guiding how this region grows in the face of climate change is the best gift we can give to future generations. We can help them enjoy their lives here long after we’re gone. It’s time for all of us to be bold, get involved, and create a resilient, climate-smart Bay Area.” Jake proclaims.
He has always been a braveheart even when in a minority position in his city. Jake has represented the 9 Sonoma County cities ably in the protection of our greenbelts and open spaces. His contributions will be remembered for generations to come.
– Deborah Fudge, Vice Mayor of Windsor
Recently celebrating his 80th birthday, Jake has a fascinating perspective. Both planning long into the future and having a deep, storied past to draw from, his view of what the Bay Area could be and his drive to get us there are the reasons we’re honoring him with the Greenbelt Alliance Champion Award. The impact his leadership and actions have made will carry on for decades, touching the lives closest to him and those of millions of people he may never meet. Jake Mackenzie has truly helped to shape this stunning place we call home. We thank him for his wisdom, and his vision.