Sonoma County may ask voters to continue greenbelt protections

Sonoma County voters next year may be asked to renew environmental protections that for almost 20 years have shielded 17,000 acres of county farmland and open space from development.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to consider placing on the November 2016 ballot an initiative to extend the county’s community separators, voter-backed scenic buffers between urban areas approved in the late 1990s that expire next year.
Community separators 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.
But environmental advocates say with regional pressure to build new housing and population growth — the number of people living in the nine-county Bay Area swelled to nearly 7.6 million last year, a 1.3 percent increase from July 2013 to July 2014 — those separators could be at risk of being developed with large-scale housing projects and businesses.
“If these expire, the county could issue permits for development on the fringe of urban areas,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county’s largest environmental organization. “We don’t want to see that happen.”
Rosatti said he and others are concerned about large multi-unit apartment buildings and commercial development encroaching on agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands, and losing the distinct separation that exists between most cities in the county.
Conservation Action and other high-profile environmental groups are steering a campaign to convince the Board of Supervisors to extend the current protections for 30 more years through a ballot measure.
They are also pushing the county to expand protections on 22,081 additional acres by amending its land-use policy in the general plan. Those areas could include scenic hillsides, meadows and river basins between Rohnert Park and Petaluma, stretching east to Sonoma Valley.
Other proposals include designating additional acres around Cloverdale and Healdsburg as community separators. At present, community separators do not extend north of Healdsburg.
Read more: Sonoma County may ask voters to continue greenbelts | The Press Democrat