By Angela Hart, The Press Democrat
On an already bulging ballot, Sonoma County voters this fall will be asked whether to extend open space protections that for the past 20 years have helped shield more than 17,000 acres of farm and untouched lands from large-scale development.
The Board of Supervisors last week voted to place on the Nov. 8 ballot a measure extending for another two decades the county’s longstanding rule requiring property owners seek additional voter approval for projects such as large housing subdivisions, for example, or commercial projects on largely undeveloped county lands separating cities.
Open space advocates argue such protections affecting buffer zones between cities, known technically as community separators, help curb urban sprawl and contain growth. They do not prevent development outright, but make it more difficult by requiring voter approval to increase the intensity of development in designated rural areas. The protections, in place since 1996 and 1998, are set to expire at the end of 2016 and 2018, respectively, though other rules regarding the parcels will remain in place.
“This doesn’t remove development potential. Whatever people are allowed to do now, they’ll still be allowed to do,” said Teri Shore, regional director for the North Bay office of Greenbelt Alliance, the nonprofit spearheading the initiative. “This is essential if we want to maintain our rural landscape. The voter protections simply help strengthen the community separators.”
Supervisors last week approved a parallel proposal through a general plan amendment that will triple the amount of land included in the buffer zones. The new greenbelts, slated for final approval by supervisors in August, include 37,700 acres of largely undeveloped county land north of Santa Rosa, east of Sebastopol, around Cloverdale and Healdsburg, south of Petaluma and between Penngrove and Cotati.
Supervisors voiced support for the open space protections, saying they help contain urban growth and preserve land for agriculture.
“In Sonoma County, we recognize the importance of greenbelts … Housing belongs in the incorporated areas,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who suggested cities such as Santa Rosa and Petaluma have room to build larger-scale developments like “three-, four-, five-story buildings.”
One of the proposed additions includes undeveloped portions of the Sonoma Developmental Center, slated to close by 2018. Supervisor Susan Gorin argued in favor of the protections, saying there has been development speculation already for that site including vineyards, housing and commercial development, and an equestrian event center.
“It is vitally important to protect the undeveloped lands of the Sonoma Developmental Center,” Gorin said.
“It has so many physical and environmental attributes and it is an important wildlife corridor. It must be protected and opened up for public access.”
Gorin said the structures already on-site could be transformed into new housing and include continued services for developmentally disabled people.
“Yes, we are in a housing crisis and we are looking into all kinds of strategies to increase the supply of affordable housing, but we can accomplish that in urban areas,” she said.
At present, the county’s protected buffer zones dot the Highway 101 corridor from Healdsburg to south of Petaluma and include pockets east of Santa Rosa, in the Springs area and outside Sebastopol. Together with similar protections enacted by most cities over the past two decades, growth has been steered into existing development patterns within city boundaries.
County planning officials initially proposed a ballot measure that extended protections an additional 30 years, but supervisors did not support it.
Farmers and representatives for the county’s agricultural industry endorsed the protections, but said the additional acreage could create land use hurdles for farmers.
“Development in this county is not running rampant,” said Mike Martini, a partner and general manager of Taft Street Winery in the Russian River Valley. “What I’m fearful of is that we have a wonderful heritage of agriculture in this county … and additional constraints will only harm the small farmer that is the backbone of our heritage.”
Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the Permit and Resource Management Department, said the open space protections do not affect agricultural uses or natural resource zones.
“The separators just prevent these areas from being converted into urban areas,” Barrett said.