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Ex-Cloverleaf Ranch site proposal sparks debate over development in rural buffer zones 

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans to revive and revamp shuttered lodging and event grounds off Old Redwood Highway are being met with resistance from Sonoma County environmentalists who say the project will encroach on rural lands voters eight months ago overwhelmingly agreed to protect from large-scale development.
The project would transform more than 20 acres just north of Santa Rosa into a new business called Solstice Sonoma, envisioned by San Francisco architect Kevin Skiles and his partners as a modern yet rural getaway for weddings and retreats, and for others seeking an escape barely removed from city services and Highway 101.
Originally developed as part of the Cloverleaf Ranch camp and horseback riding school next door, the site is located within one of the buffer zones between cities that received an additional 20 years of protection through the passage of Measure K last year.
Known technically as community separators, the buffer zones remain subject to longstanding county rules requiring voter approval of large new projects such as major housing tracts, shopping malls or other commercial developments.
Proponents contend the Solstice plans are in keeping with county land-use rules, including Measure K. Construction would be hidden behind a hill covered in grapevines, rendering the new development invisible to passing motorists, and the site was used for decades as a camp and event facility.
But critics say the proposed construction goes far beyond what land-use rules allow in rural buffer zones and what voters agreed to in November. They see the project as a key test of the strength of Measure K, which passed with more than 81 percent of the vote.
“This project definitely pushes the envelope,” said Teri Shore, regional director for the North Bay office of Greenbelt Alliance, which spearheaded the ballot measure. “This is one of the last visible green buffers between Santa Rosa and Windsor.”
Parts of the project were evaluated Wednesday by Sonoma County’s Design Review Committee, which still needs to hold at least one more meeting to consider the proposed design in more detail. That committee does not have any land-use authority — ultimately, the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments will need to approve or deny the project, a step at least a few months away. The zoning board’s decision can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Read more at: Ex-Cloverleaf Ranch site proposal sparks debate over rural buffer zones | The Press Democrat

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Sonoma County voters to decide on extending open space protections 

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.
community separatorsThe 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.

Read more at: Sonoma County voters to decide on extending open space protections | The Press Democrat

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Green light for greenbelts

Teri Shore, GREENBELT ALLIANCE
In a big year-end win for greenbelts, all five Sonoma County supervisors came out strongly in favor of extending voter protections for community separators and adding to them in 2016! Community separators are one of the important tools protecting the greenbelt lands between Sonoma’s cities and towns from sprawl development.
In a room filled with about 50 supporters wearing “Strengthen Community Separators” stickers, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to develop a ballot measure for November 2016 to renew county community separators. See the front page Press Democrat article for more.
All five supervisors also made a commitment to consider adding as many as 22,000 acres of priority greenbelts to community separators in a parallel public process through the General Plan. Hear it in their own words in this short KRCB radio interview.
WHAT THE SUPERVISORS AGREED TO DO NEXT YEAR
Ballot Measure: The Sonoma County supervisors voted unanimously to develop a ballot measure to extend voter protections for the county’s eight community separators for the November 2016 general election.
The supervisors agreed to extend voter protections to existing and future community separators between unincorporated communities for 30 years, a strong new policy that opens the door to community separators between places like Forestville and Graton.
They decided to keep the voter protections linked to urban growth boundaries.  The revised policy maintains voter protections for community separators in perpetuity – as long as a city maintains voter protections for its Urban Growth Boundary. A uniform long-term expiry date for all community separators are more protective by preventing lapses in voter protections.
They did not agree to add any new designations through the ballot measure.
General Plan Amendment: The supervisors voted to designate priority greenbelts and consider designating other at-risk county lands by amending the General Plan in a parallel public process in 2016 for adoption no later than January 2017.
Please note that they will consider adding more than 22,000 acres of Sonoma County lands that qualify as priority greenbelts by the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. The final acreage will be determined through the public process. Lands around Penngrove and Cloverdale will also be considered.
The supervisors agreed to modify some of the policies including the “commercial development” loophole that has allowed several community separators to shrink.

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Proposed Dairyman Winery and event center corked for now

Krista Sherer, SONOMA WEST TIMES
The contentious Dairyman project hit an obstacle in September with the response from the Sonoma County Regional Parks denying access across the Joe Rodota trail for the project.  Residents and community groups throughout Sonoma County have opposed the project from the beginning, voicing that the large-scale winery and event center would not only violate zoning to the trail drastically effecting traffic, harm the ecosystem to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and negatively influence the overall character to the rural charm of West County.
In a Sept. 17 letter from Sonoma County Regional Parks (SCRP) Director Caryl Hart to Permit and Resource Management Department’s (PMRD) Supervising Planner Traci Tesconi, Hart wrote that the land owner currently has no legal rights to cross the trail and crosses at the county’s sufferance.
Read more about this project at: Proposed Dairyman Winery and event center corked for now – Sonoma West Times and News: News

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Sonoma County may ask voters to continue greenbelt protections

Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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

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Community separators could be a voter favorite in 2016

Jay Gamel, THE KENWOOD PRESS
Measure to curb urban sprawl set to expire next year
Many organizations concerned with the future of the county’s Community Separator program are being proactive about the impending sunset of the voter-approved measure coming up next year. A survey commissioned by the Greenbelt Alliance indicates strong voter support for not only re-approving the concept of preventing urban sprawl, but even strengthening it to include a wider area of protection, such as riparian habitat, and protecting drinking water, among others.
Community separators basically seek to preserve a greenbelt around each Sonoma County city by prohibiting increased building density without a public vote. They do not restrict any other permitted development within the designated zoning overlay. To qualify for a county mandated community separator, each city had to establish its own Urban Growth Boundary – a limit on how far the city would seek to expand in the future.

Map of Northeast Santa Rosa Community Separator
The Northeast Santa Rosa Community Separator (shown in yellow) encompasses 3,300 acres. (Map courtesy of the Greenbelt Alliance)

With a few exceptions for schools, fire departments and other public interest developments, the community separator concept has been successful: there have been no increased density developments within them for the past 18 years, though there have been developments, such as Kenwood’s La Campagna/Sonoma Country Inn on the Graywood Ranch property, which was permitted through an exception for “overriding considerations,” such as enhanced tax revenue.
Two years ago, the county’s Board of Supervisors budgeted time and resources for its Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) to examine the effect of the community separators and what to do when they expire. A PRMD analysis is expected to be delivered before the end of the year. The direction was to review and strengthen General Plan community separator policies.
However, as far as strengthening the law, Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin said, “PRMD has limited resources to work on the necessary outreach to consider adding extensive land to the separators, in anticipation of a ballot initiative.”
The process for renewal of a similar or expanded community separator law involves either the supervisors putting it on the ballot, or it being created through a voter petition, requiring nearly 15,000 signatures in Sonoma County. The former is the preferred process of just about everyone concerned.
A wide range of interested people gathered at the Sonoma Land Trust office in Santa Rosa on Oct. 8 to hear the Greenbelt Alliance survey findings. Those present included representatives from the Sonoma Ecology Center, the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, Valley of the Moon Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action, Sonoma Land Trust, Wine & Water Watch, American Farmland Trust, Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, Greenbelt Alliance, Preserve Rural Sonoma, and city council members from Santa Rosa and Petaluma.
Read more at: The Kenwood Press – Community separators could be a voter favorite in 2016

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Push to renew Sonoma County’s greenbelt protections fans debate

Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

(Sonomamap, Sonoma County)
(SonomaMap, Sonoma County)

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.
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.
Read more at: Amid housing crunch, push to renew Sonoma County’s | The Press Democrat

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State's plan to close Sonoma Developmental Center blasted

Derek Moore & Angela Hart, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The draft closure plan did earn wide praise, however, for its recommendation that Sonoma Developmental property not be sold off as surplus, as has happened in similar situations.

The state’s draft plan for closing the Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018 is drawing sharp condemnation from family members and advocates for the disabled over the plan’s perceived failure to adequately address the long-term needs of 400 center residents, who would be moved into community-based settings.
During a highly charged hearing in Sonoma on Monday, dozens of people railed against the closure plan, saying it will result in developmental center residents receiving a substandard level of care that poses risks to their health and possibly their survival.
“This is a cookie-cutter plan that does nothing but fast-track the closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center,” said Brien Farrell of Santa Rosa, whose sister has lived at the facility since 1958.
The state for months has signaled its intent to shutter the Sonoma Developmental Center for budgetary reasons and because institutionalized care for the severely disabled continues to fall out of public favor. But many advocates for the facility have pushed for the state to maintain some level of services at the Eldridge site, including a crisis center and specialized offerings such as dental care.
Read more at: State’s plan to close Sonoma Developmental Center blasted | The Press Democrat

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Op-Ed: Community separators – nature’s bulwark against the next San Jose

Jason Walsh, SONOMA INDEX-TRIBUNE
Take heed, Sonoma. Don’t let our quirky little community character cross-pollinate with our, how shall we say, “less desirable” neighbors of the North Bay. You know the ones: Napa to the east, Santa Rosa to the west.
Heaven forbid, the land Hap Arnold called home is ever diluted by encroachment from our southern friends in, egad, Novato.
But that’s what’s at stake if the 20-year-old “community separator” designations are allowed to expire in 2016.
Community separators are just that: areas that separate communities. They’re lands zoned to act as open space buffers between neighboring communities – to prevent the type of overdevelopment that, when not held in check, can create suburban sprawl which results in, as Teri Shore of the Greenbelt Alliance describes, “city running into city running into city – like you (see) in San Jose.”
Of course, with all-do respect to our friends in the “Capital of Silicon Valley” it would take a lot of horrific city planning decisions for Sonoma to wind up with anything like San Jose’s 25-plus “neighborhoods,” former towns that the city annexed mid-20th century to increase its tax base. (1960s-ers City Manager “Dutch” Hamann vowed to turn San Jose into “another Los Angeles.”)
Now, Sonoma is nowhere near that level of suburban hegemony (though some have had their eye on a tasty little morsel called the Springs over the years). But that doesn’t mean community separators aren’t still important.
Read more at: Editorial: Community separators – nature’s bulwark against the | Sonoma Index-Tribune | Sonoma News, Entertainment, Sports, Real Estate, Events, Photos, Sonoma, CA

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Breathing room for Sonoma Developmental Center advocates 

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A bill that sought to close the Sonoma Developmental Center and a similar facility in Southern California on an accelerated timeline was held over Tuesday until next year.
The bill’s author, Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, said he agreed to the delay after he and Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, met Monday to discuss McGuire’s concerns about the proposal.
McGuire is chairman of the Senate’s Human Services Committee, which heard SB 639 Tuesday.A month ago, McGuire publicly criticized Stone for bringing the bill, saying the Riverside County senator “would be challenged to find Sonoma on a map.”
Read more via: Breathing room for Sonoma Developmental Center advocates | The Press Democrat