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Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development

Tyler Silvy, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.
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Lower Russian River to get first big regional park near Monte Rio

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County has acquired 515 acres of forest on the southern edge of Monte Rio that will be protected and opened to the public as the first major regional park in the lower Russian River area, offering a new outdoor destination for residents and the region’s steady stream of visitors.

The property, long eyed by park planners as a potential gem in the growing collection of preserved open space in west county, contains towering stands of mixed redwood and Douglas fir forest, as well as more than a mile of Dutch Bill Creek, which feeds into the Russian River.

In addition, its location offers options for future links to the Sonoma Coast State Beach and an envisioned 5½-mile “parkway” south through the redwoods between Monte Rio and Occidental.

“There are so many things about this site that are incredible,” said Misti Arias, acquisitions manager for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which helped fund the $3.9 million purchase.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who championed the deal from its earliest stages, touted the economic benefits of expanded outdoor opportunities, imagining the new park as a recreational hub that spurs and sustains commerce and community in nearby Monte Rio, which struggles with some of the highest unemployment rates countywide.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/former-sonoma-county-parks-director-to-serve-as-interim-chief-at-open-space/

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Cazadero cannabis grower pleads guilty to felony environmental violations

Zoe Strickland, SONOMA WEST TIMES & NEWS

Michael Silva, 37, of Cazadero pled guilty to three felony counts related to environmental violations on a property where he was growing 1,450 cannabis plants, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday night, Oct. 29.

Silva hadn’t obtained environmental permits for his grow. According to the district attorney’s office, he will perform remediation, 300 hours of community service, obtain the correct permits and satisfy other requirements related to cultivating on the Cazadero property “with the understanding that charges will be dismissed upon completion in a year.”

The cannabis operation was discovered in September 2019 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Upon the discovery and following the execution of a warrant, it was determined that Silva was diverting water without permits and engaging in unpermitted construction work without best management practices that could resort in water pollution.

District Attorney Ravitch stated, “The defendant’s activities not only presented unacceptable harm to the environment but also contributed to the illegal cannabis market, a problem for this community and for lawful cultivation.”

“Silva will not be sentenced provided he abides by his agreement with the prosecution,” the statement from the district attorney’s office states. “The agreement also requires Silva to obtain the necessary permits to perform stream restoration over the next year. Should Silva fail to comply with the agreement reached with the prosecution, he faces potential administrative enforcement by sister state agencies, including CDFW and the Water Boards, and is subject to a maximum sentence of 10 years.”

The case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White, with investigation provided by CDFW and with assistance from the Water Boards.

Source: http://www.sonomawest.com/sonoma_west_times_and_news/news/cazadero-cannabis-grower-pleads-guilty-to-felony-environmental-violations/

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MALT Board of Directors’ conflicts of interest exposed as legal battle unfolds

Peter Byrne, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN

In January 2017, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) paid $1.66 million to the family business of a member of its board of directors, Sam Dolcini.

The money bought a conservation easement on hundreds of acres of cattle-grazing land owned by Sam and his father, Earl Dolcini. Half of the purchase price came from a sales tax supporting Marin County Parks. The balance came from tax-deductible corporate and private donations made to MALT, a non-profit charity which the Internal Revenue Service terms a 501(c)3.

The county’s contribution to the Dolcini deal was approved without debate by the Marin County Board of Supervisors, which is closely connected to MALT. Supervisor Dennis Rodoni sat on the MALT board when the Dolcini deal was sealed, and Marin Board of Supervisors President Steve Kinsey was a MALT director from 1997 to 2016.

Years later, in May 2020, Parks suddenly ordered MALT to refund the county funds used to purchase the $1,666,500 Dolcini easement. The reason? When applying for the funding, MALT had failed to disclose the existence of an appraisal it had commissioned that valued the easement at half a million dollars less than the price paid by MALT and the county.

MALT immediately refunded $833,250 to the county using private donations. The Dolcinis did not return any of the money, said MALT spokesperson Isabel French. In June, executive director, Jamison Watts, resigned to “recalibrate my life-work balance.” As facts about the board’s historic conflicts of interest spill into view, MALT has lawyered up.

It turns out Sam Dolcini is not the first board member to sell an easement to the land trust. MALT has spent tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds buying easements from its own board members.

Read more at: https://www.bohemian.com/northbay/malt-directors-conflicts-of-interest-exposed-as-legal-battle-unfolds/Content?oid=10569479

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Bill Keene resigns as head of Sonoma County’s open space district

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a district advisory committee member, said her constituents want to see the majority of the district funds go toward agricultural lands ― preserving open space and natural resources that remain in private hands, and thus at lower cost than having to purchase the property outright.

While residents wouldn’t be able to get on the land, “the public can also be enjoying agricultural preservation by driving by and seeing a field full of cows or seeing a ridge top that’s not full of houses.”

The longtime head of Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has announced he is stepping down from the job, setting off both a search for his interim replacement and suggestions by some that his departure offers an opportunity to reshape leadership of the taxpayer-funded agency.

Bill Keene, who has served as general manager since 2009, submitted last month his resignation to the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the 30-year-old district, acting as its board of directors.

Keene, 51, who joined county government in 2000, working previously for Sonoma Water, is only the third director in the open space district’s history.

Keene stressed that the decision to leave was his ― prompted by questions he has asked himself amid the past seven months of the pandemic about the next stage of his career and intertwining crises, including escalating climate emergency, social unrest and, recently, catastrophic wildfires along the West Coast.

“I’m not sure where I’m going to be,” he said. “I’ve always known where I was going, and this is the first time. But I saw a couple of my colleagues jump and decide to do different things during the pandemic, and it kind of inspired me.”

His contract expires in November, though he has agreed to stay through the end of January if needed.

The departure has opened a conversation about what the county wants in the next general manager and in the overall direction of the agency. Supervisors said it was not unusual for them to be signaling such a discussion at this point.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/bill-keene-resigns-as-head-of-sonoma-countys-open-space-district/

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Sonoma County winery faces record $172,000 fine for alleged vineyard work violations

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A Geyserville winery and its billionaire owner face a record fine from Sonoma County agriculture officials who contend the Alexander Valley company destroyed nearly an acre of land this summer through hillside grading and conducted other unpermitted work.

The $172,282 fine issued July 10 to Skipstone Ranch owner and technology entrepreneur Fahri Diner is the largest ever levied by the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures. It’s more than triple the previous high penalty, a $50,000 penalty in November 2019 related to disruption of wetlands.

Skipstone Ranch is appealing the three violations related to the fine; there are tentative plans for a late October county administrative hearing.

n a report detailing findings of their investigation and notification of the violations, county agriculture officials documented an industrial grading operation on a steep hillside along the northwestern edge of the Skipstone Ranch property off of Geysers Road. This resulted in nearly identical terracing to the adjacent hillside grapevines on the 200-acre estate vineyard property. Ag officials also accused the property owner of disallowed grape plantings elsewhere on the property.

A spokeswoman for Skipstone Ranch acknowledged the work was similar to adjacent terracing for grapevines, but she said the construction was tied strictly to repairs related to the October 2019 Kincade fire that burned 77,000 acres in Sonoma County. She said the winery had no intention of planting additional grapevines.
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Montage Healdsburg builder seeks to renegotiate deal with city as resort nears opening

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Initial discussions are underway between the builder of a long-planned luxury hotel just months away from completion in Healdsburg and city officials over public benefits in the original development deal that the builder wants to forgo, including on-site construction of affordable housing.

Montage Healdsburg, touted as the city’s first five-star hotel, is set to open by December, about 15 years after the previously named Saggio Hills project was put forward on 258 wooded acres on the north side of town. It includes 130 rooms and suites ranging from $695 to $1,695 a night, and plans for up to 70 villa-style homes.

But as the finishing touches on the hotel are put in place, the Robert Green Company, the Encinitas-based developer, and project subsidiary Sonoma Luxury Resort, are seeking to renegotiate some of the public amenities called for in the 2011 approval that paved the way for the project, previously estimated to cost up to $310 million.

In exchange for a $7.25 million cash payment to the city, Robert Green Jr., the company’s president and chief executive officer, wants to forgo on-site development of affordable housing and other public amenities he was required to provide, including a fire substation, construction of a community park, a trail network and two public roadways meant to aid emergency evacuation and link with the nearby Parkland Farms subdivision.

On the 14-acre affordable housing site, which Green was to grade for the city before handing over for construction, the developer instead wants place an open space easement, barring future building. The cash payment would be intended in part to help finance equivalent housing elsewhere in the city.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/montage-healdsburg-builder-seeks-to-renegotiate-deal-with-city-as-resort-ne/

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Sorax, the Ghost of Salmon Past, speaks at the Board of Supervisors in 2012 on the passing of the VESCO ordinance

I am a ghost of Coho Salmons past, once born and raised in Dutch Bill Creek below Occidental. My last reported sighting there was in the 1960’s. I speak for all salmon and wildlife species not able to attend your meetings.


Do you realize that as public servants and supposed stewards of the Russian River that it is the only river in California to have three listed Salmonid species: Coho, Chinook and Steelhead? That is three distinct species of unique, ancient animals. Shall I remind you that humans, all 6 billion of you, compromise only one distinct species, which at this point ought to be renamed “Homo consumous.”

We as salmon, as recently in our evolution as 150 years ago, used to live in peace with the humans of this land, and we co-evolved with the harbor seals and sea lions and our natal forested creeks. The abundance of our families was so great that your early pioneering families remarked “that we were so numerous” they could “walk on our backs.” This all changed with your arrival. In the last 100 years, or during the time of those 3rd, 4th & 5th generation families who so proudly and loudly exclaim in your newspapers to be stewards of the land, it was they who cleared this land of over 95% of its old growth forests, 95% of its riparian forests, drained 95% of its wetlands.

I ask you where are my friends the Grizzly, the Elk, the Antelope, the Marbled Murrelet? My Coho ancestors used to number 500,000 in California rivers and now our runs number less than 5,000, to as low as 1,000 individuals! We are nearing the brink of functional extinction simultaneously with such gloating of stewardship.

It is critical for all of you to recognize that, compared to the past, this land is actually in a highly degraded state. You all need to own up to the fact that your ancestors are indisputably responsible for the overwhelming genocide of the Pomo and Miwok peoples, the silvacide of the great forests, the soilacide (as your activities have eroded and compacted the once rich fertility) and the salmonicide (as I stand before you at the tail end of our existence). If you have the vision and courage, this can change, you can turn this around if you act in earnest now.

This erosion ordinance you pass today with its especially inadequate riparian setbacks is a feeble first step and leaves me with fear for my children, but a critical move in the right direction if you decide to take more steps and begin walking towards a future vision of ecological watershed integrity.

Remember, I am a fish of the forest. Without trees, my breeding streams fill with sediment, dry up due to lack of groundwater recharge and what water remains becomes lethally hot for my young. Every aspect of your development paradigm must be questioned and reevaluated with restorative criteria. You must question your roads, parking lots, housing, industrial, agricultural, logging and mining practices. We the salmon are dying from the cumulative impacts of your collective inabilities to think like a watershed. If we go extinct and fade from memory, so will you!

In closing, since my spawning gravels are so embedded with silt from the denuded, compacted hillsides, I want to offer each of you, as servants of the public trust, an egg of mine that hopefully will help your thoughts to incubate on taking the recovery of Totem Salmon seriously and birthing a new vision of a shared watershed commons for the sake of all our relations.

Thank you,

The Sorax, aka Brock Dolman, Director of the Water Institute at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center.

Source: https://oaec.org/our-work/projects-and-partnerships/water-institute/

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Methane is on an alarming upward trend

Rob Jackson, Marielle Saunois, Philippe Bousquet, Pep Canadell & Ben Poulter, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Atmospheric concentrations of the second most important greenhouse gas are hitting record levels

Cows, oil and gas wells, rice paddies, landfills. These are some of the biggest sources of methane staining the atmosphere today. Methane is the most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, and its concentration reached a record 1,875 parts per billion (ppb) last year, more than two and a half times preindustrial levels. Peak methane in the atmosphere feels as elusive as a cure for the (next) coronavirus.


As scientists at the Global Carbon Project, we and dozens of our colleagues just published a four-year study and public data sets of the Global Methane Budget to estimate methane sources from land, oceans, agriculture and fossil fuel use. Methane emissions reached a record 596 million metric tons per year (range of 572–614 million tons including error estimates) in 2017, the last year for which data are fully available. We present the results in the journals Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters.

More than half of global methane emissions come from human activities, primarily agriculture and fossil fuel use. Our estimate for 2017 is up about 50 million tons, or 9 percent, compared to annual methane emissions in the early 2000s. Convert those 50 million extra tons of methane each year to the warming potential of carbon dioxide over the next century, and we’ve added the equivalent of 350 million more cars to the world’s roads—or another Germany and France to the world’s emitters.

The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is tracking trajectories modeled in aggressive warming scenarios where global temperatures rise by three to four degrees Celsius this century. With each passing year, we move further away from the pathways that climate models suggest will hold warming below 1.5 or two degrees C. In many ways we’re even further from reducing methane emissions than we are for carbon dioxide.

Biological sources of methane arise primarily from microbes growing in low-oxygen environments, including natural wetlands, landfills, water-logged rice paddies and the stomachs of ruminant cows, goats and sheep. We don’t find evidence for increased methane emissions from natural wetlands, but we do from landfills and ruminants through 2017; there are a billion and a half more people on earth today than in the year 2000, and average red meat consumption per person is still increasing. Agriculture contributes about two thirds of all methane released from human actions—as much as all natural sources combined.

Natural seeps, such as bubbling mud volcanoes, release some methane from fossil sources underground. But most fossil geologic methane making its way to the atmosphere comes from fossil fuels we extract, transport or burn. After agriculture’s two-thirds contribution, fossil fuel activities contribute most of the remaining third of global methane emissions from human actions—from coal mines and oil and gas wells to leaky natural gas pipelines and kitchen stoves. Overall, emissions from agriculture and fossil fuel use contributed equally to the 50-million-ton annual increase we observed.
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Op-Ed: A greenbelt is no place for a resort

Teri Shore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, political unrest and economic uncertainty, Sonoma County is seeking to bypass voters and flout open space protections to push forward a luxury resort and major event center in the heart of the voter-protected Windsor-Larkfield-Santa Rosa community separator greenbelt.

The site on Old Redwood Highway also is also on the edge of Santa Rosa’s voter-approved urban growth boundary.

In one fell swoop, this development would trod on two critical legacy land-use policies overwhelmingly supported by the voters of Sonoma County. In 2016, voters approved Measure K to expand community separators by 81%. The Santa Rosa growth boundary was renewed in 2010 with 67% of the vote.
Teri Shore
Teri Shore

While everyone is tackling multiple crises, county planners want to allow construction of a luxury resort subdivision of a dozen one-, two- and three-bedroom Wine Country party houses, a warehouse-sized event building, commercial kitchen, pool bar, huge party tents and a new paved road in the community separator.

The plan is for a hundred events serving 10,000 people per year and open daily for high-end drinking, dining, weddings and music until 10 p.m. on what is presently undeveloped land next door to a youth summer camp and a residential center for seniors.

Even worse, the resort is to be located in the Tubbs fire burn zone at the foot of Fountaingrove, putting more people in harm’s way.

The resort would bring low-paying service jobs that would only exacerbate inequity and the housing crisis. It would compete with struggling local businesses.

Strangely, county planners have determined that there would be no significant environmental impacts from the intensified commercial use of the property to Piner Creek or to a large pond, which is home to yellow-legged frogs and giant salamanders on the property once known as Buzzard’s Gulch, but renamed Sonoma Solstice.

The resort and event center violate critical community separator protections, the general plan and the zoning code, and it would override the will of the voters by intensifying development and increasing density on rural land. There is nothing this big or with this many events in any community separator or any property designated for rural and resource development. There are other options for small-scale, low-intensity lodging that would be allowed.

The resort needs to be denied, delayed or sent to a vote of the people.

The county is accepting public comments on the proposal and environmental review until Tuesday. A public hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustments is tentatively set for 1 p.m. Thursday for a vote on the environmental review and the project. Send your comments to permitsonoma@sonoma-county.org.

Teri Shore is North Bay regional director for Greenbelt Alliance.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/opinion/close-to-home-a-greenbelt-is-no-place-for-a-resort/