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Op-Ed: Sonoma County at a crossroads

Teri Shore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County is at a crossroads right now with new and ongoing challenges such as climate change and extreme weather, housing needs and poor public transit that have the potential to change our communities and lands for decades to come. The general plan and zoning code are the tools intended to provide a vision and path forward on land use and to provide certainty for residents and voters.

The county’s general plan update has been postponed for the past three years because of the fires and floods that have devastated our communities. In fact, these extreme events have created a new urgency for updating the general plan. The county must respond to changed conditions since the last general plan update, more than a decade ago, and forge a way forward into an uncertain future and a “new normal.”

That is why Greenbelt Alliance, the Sierra Club, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Wine and Water Watch and Mobilize Sonoma recently joined forces to urge the Board of Supervisors to prioritize the update of the general plan without further delay.

But after a lengthy public hearing on April 16, the supervisors voted in favor of Permit Sonoma’s recommendation to delay work on the general plan for another year or more. They decided to prioritize multiple important existing and new initiatives over the next two years. The Permit Sonoma work plan priorities is to be finalized at the June 4 supervisors meeting.

Most of the priorities are supported by environmental community, but several raise red flags because of conflicts with city-centered growth and the potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions. This is even more alarming given that no climate measures were made priorities.

In response to large community turnout at the April 16 public hearing, revising the county cannabis ordinance was put at the top of the priority planning list.

Next in line, with strongest community support, was updating the county tree ordinance, promised for a decade or more. The county’s tree protection ordinance allows trees, including oak woodlands, to be cleared for wine grapes, hay and other agriculture without public review. It is now back on the priority list.

Finalizing the Local Coastal Plan, the general plan for the coast, is also to move forward. A previous draft sparked controversy because of proposals to open up more coastal areas to commercial and vineyard development.

Long overdue winery event regulations were also made a priority, though it is not clear how soon the county will move forward, or whether draft staff guidelines will ever be released, or if county will rely entirely on standards developed by wineries and/or neighbors in each area of overconcentration.

Other priorities include planning for the Sonoma Developmental Center, adding more vacation rental exclusion zones and the Springs specific plan.

Several priorities seem a bit out of whack. Should we really be fast-tracking housing at the Santa Rosa Airport Business Park and in southeast Santa Rosa on county lands outside of voter-approved urban growth boundaries in Santa Rosa and Windsor? Both undermine long-standing city-centered growth policies.

Rezoning and opening up more rural parcels for large accessory dwelling units — as big as double-wide mobile homes — and without affordability requirements won’t solve the housing problem. Doing so will definitely increase greenhouse gas emissions, by adding more people who need to drive everywhere.

If we want to change course, we need to update the general plan first. The Board of Supervisors should provide a date certain timeline for the general plan update to be underway, not later than 2020-2021 and with no further delays.

Teri Shore is North Bay regional director for Greenbelt Alliance in Santa Rosa.

Source: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9576123-181/close-to-home-sonoma-county?sba=AAS

Posted on Categories Forests, Habitats, Land UseTags , , , ,

Sonoma County couple ordered to pay nearly $600,000 for damage to protected property

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale had seen pictures.

So he thought he had a good idea of what awaited him when he went out to inspect a protected piece of land on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain a few years back. A concerned neighbor had reported heavy equipment and questionable activity on property protected under a conservation easement and, thus, intended to remain in its natural state.

But while photos conveyed “a sense of it, it’s nothing compared to actually seeing it,” Neale, a soft-spoken man, said of the environmental damage he witnessed that day in 2014. “I was not prepared.”

Neale and an associate found a patch of private landscape above Bennett Valley scraped down to bedrock in some places and a trenched, 180-year-old oak uprooted and bound so it could be dragged to an adjoining parcel to adorn the grounds of a newly constructed estate home, according to court documents.

That heritage oak and two others the landowners sought to move over a haul road they bulldozed through the previously undisturbed site all died, along with a dozen more trees and other vegetation, according to court records.

The damage would eventually prompt Sonoma Land Trust to sue the property owners, Peter and Toni Thompson, a highly unusual step for the private nonprofit. Last month, it prevailed in what representatives hailed as a landmark legal victory.

The court battle came well after the full extent of the losses was discovered on the 34-acre conservation property. Grading for the haul road in 2014 removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, the ruling found. No permits were obtained for any of the work, according to court documents.

The Thompsons had construction crews dredge an existing lake on their adjacent 47-acre residential spread, known as Henstooth Ranch, and dump the soil on the protected parcel, extending the haul road to accomplish that work, according to court documents.

“It was,” said Neale, a 25-year veteran in the open space field, “really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”

In his blunt 57-page ruling, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided strongly with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for “knowing and intentional” violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He said the couple had shown a “persistent failure to tell the truth” as the case unfolded and had “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement.”

Broderick ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages toward environmental restoration and other costs outlined in a judgment finalized last week.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9556824-181/sonoma-county-couple-ordered-to

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, ForestsTags , , ,

Sonoma County groups embrace return of the mighty acorn

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Oak trees are among the most visible icons of the ancient Northern California landscape. With dark limbs curling above a carpet of grass, they lend an almost parklike visage to the foothills. The ten native species here also have seasonally dropped vast quantities of edible harvests of acorns, which support a bounty of wildlife and once fed indigenous people, who used fire and other tested practices to protect and nurture productive “orchards” in the woodlands.

The acorn was the original California cuisine, a reliable, nutritious staple on every menu that literally grew on trees. But after thousands of years, the venerable acorn was ignominiously edged out, to be replaced by imports of wheat flour, French fries, instant rice and corn flakes.

Despite its culinary disappearance, appreciation for the humble oak tree nut was never completely extinguished, and now it’s making a modest comeback, thanks to renewed interest in local, sustainable, functional and even foraged foods.

A mid-February workshop at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation entitled “Seed to Table: How to Process and Eat Acorns of the Laguna Watershed,” was nearly sold out several weeks in advance.

The wild acorn is also the focus of local tribal groups seeking ways to strengthen cultural ties, reclaim their rich California heritage, and restore links to healthy diets from ancestral lands. A local, indigenously produced new product, Acorn Bites, is set to hit the local market in February.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/9247142-181/sonoma-county-groups-embrace-return

Posted on Categories Forests, HabitatsTags , , , ,

Nonprofit restores Sonoma County’s natural habitat with oak tree seedlings

Hannah Beausang, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When Natalie Portis first stepped onto her property in Sonoma nearly 20 years ago, she was immediately enchanted by the verdant natural landscape and the stately oak trees.

Portis’ wooded oasis was among the thousands of acres of forests and oak-studded landscapes that burned in the October 2017 Nuns fire, which claimed her home and an estimated 700 trees on her 10-acre Castle Road property.

“It still feels surreal,” Portis, 59, said. “It was devastating to go back there and see the singed trees. I just remember being there and feeling the grief and toll of such loss.”

She’s rebuilding her home and plans to move in this summer. It’s been a “painful” process, but a bright spot came last month as she planted 21 oak tree seedlings sprouted from acorns collected by local volunteers in the weeks after the devastating wildfires two years ago in Sonoma County.

“It was very playful and very sweet, and it put a huge smile on my face,” she said of planting the young coast live oaks on her property with help from members of the California Native Plant Society. “I feel like I’m going to get back home.”

Oak trees have long defined the bucolic landscapes of Sonoma County and played a critical role in shaping its natural habitat. Recognizing the need to preserve and proliferate the native species after the fires, the California Native Plant Society and its local Milo Baker chapter — named after the noted Santa Rosa botanist — quickly launched efforts in 2017 to harvest acorns from areas near burn zones in the county and surrounding communities.

“Oaks are really the powerhouses of our ecosystem here in California when it comes to native plants,” said Liv O’Keeffe, senior director of communication and engagement for the environmental nonprofit society. “A single oak can literally support hundreds of insects, pollinators, birds, critters and other plant species. Having those oaks in place keeps an ecosystem intact.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9116919-181/nonprofit-restores-sonoma-countys-natural

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Napa County ballot measure limiting vineyard development fails narrowly

Caleb Pershan, SF EATER

On Friday, proponents of a Napa County ballot measure intended to protect the environment admitted defeat at the polls but vowed to continue their fight. The results of Measure C, known as the Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, were initially too close to call, but in a nearly final tally of votes, the measure appears to have failed by a slim margin.

Measure C would have set a 795-acre limit on oak forests that could be cut to plant vines on land zoned as agricultural watershed, among other environmental restrictions. But the result of its passage, according to opponents, would have placed punishing restrictions on hillside vineyard development, one of the few areas of plantable land left in the county.

“While we’re obviously disappointed by the outcome, we’re as committed as ever to taking the steps needed to keep our local water supplies clean and reliable,” said Mike Hackett, co-chair of the Yes on C committee, according to a statement from the committee.

From https://sf.eater.com/2018/6/18/17473828/napa-ballot-measure-c-fails-slim-marin

Posted on Categories ForestsTags , , ,

Sudden oak death rampant in Sonoma County after two wet winters, raising longterm fire risks

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rejuvenated by two straight wet winters, the insidious pathogen that has killed more than 3 million trees in Central and Northern California in the past two decades reached a record level of infection this year, including major gains in Sonoma County.
The spread of sudden oak death could further transform North Coast forests already ravaged by drought and altered by climate change, increasing their vulnerability to catastrophic fire.
The lethal pathogen is spread largely by wind-blown water droplets and resides in bay laurel trees without harm but can infect and ultimately kill four species of oaks, the fire-resistant native hardwoods that cover coastal ranges and inland valleys and hillsides. Their displacement, in favor of bay trees and conifers, could raise fire risks across the region.
“If you’ve had sudden oak death for 20 years, my guess is the forests will be worse off,” said Matteo Garbelotto, director of the forest pathology and mycology laboratory at UC Berkeley, which oversees the annual sudden oak death survey.
Results of the latest survey showed a 10-fold increase over 2015 — from 3.8 percent to 37 percent this year — in the sudden oak death infection rate in an area that includes Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Petaluma. That level of infection, which stunned researchers, was matched or exceeded in only three other parts of the 17-county survey area.
The infection rate doubled north of Healdsburg and increased slightly less west of Highway 101, where the infection is already rampant in the hills west of Sebastopol.
Read more at: Sudden oak death rampant in Sonoma County after two wet winters, raising longterm fire risks

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Sonoma County Forests, Part Three: An uncertain future

Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Among individual species there will [also] be winners and losers. Redwoods are expected to remain stable in the western half of the county, but decline in places more distant from the coast. Douglas fir shows a similar pattern. The biggest loser may be Oregon or Garry oak. The real winner may not be a tree at all, but chamise, a shrubby chaparral species.

To look into the future of forests in Sonoma County requires finding a similar time in the past — or at least one as close as possible. And for that, scientists have turned to studying minute specks of pollen at the bottom of Clear Lake.
“When considering the future of our forests,” says Professor David Ackerly of UC Berkeley, “the closest analogy for the present moment was the warming at the end of the last ice age, 14,000 years ago.” Pollen preserved in sediment at the bottom of Clear Lake recorded a dramatic change at that time from conifer-dominated forests to oak woodland. That transition took place over 4000 years, as temperatures rose about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Today the Earth is heating up many times faster and, depending on who you talk to, warming over the coming century could match the rise after the ice age. Changes in rainfall are also expected for Sonoma County, although it’s uncertain whether we’ll see more precipitation or less. But even with more rain, warmer overall temperatures may increase evaporation to the point where less water will be available to plants. The timing of rainfall is important, too — a few torrential storms bank less soil moisture than the same amount falling slowly and steadily over the winter months. Soil moisture is an important factor controlling where trees can grow.
In this scenario, the survival of living things depends upon their ability to adjust to the changes more quickly than in the past. Animals are lucky ­— they can move to other locations; individual trees and plants are stuck to one spot. In the short term, many are already shifting their yearly cycles — the beginning of spring, as marked by budding and flowering, is two weeks earlier than it was 50 years ago. Long-term, trees move between generations, their seeds spread by wind, water, gravity and animals to more suitable places.
Read more at: Sonoma County’s forests face uncertain future | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Forests, Habitats, WaterTags , ,

Appeals court backs Napa County in watershed initiative dispute

Barry Eberling, NAPA VALLEY REGISTER
An appeals court has upheld Napa County’s rejection of a proposed Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Measure that backers had wanted to appear on last November’s ballot.
California’s First District Court of Appeal has issued a decision making it harder for backers of a controversial watershed and oak protection initiative to place their measure before voters. The three-judge panel in a Tuesday decision agreed with the county that the initiative petition had a fatal, if technical, flaw. Backers might have to once again go to shopping centers and gather a few thousand signatures if they want to move forward.
“I believe our group is stronger than ever,” Angwin resident and initiative backer Mike Hackett said on Thursday. “I think we’re determined to put a measure on the ballot about the protection of our water resources and trees.”
Backers are considering options, Hackett said. Possibilities include appealing the Court of Appeal decision to the California Supreme Court and circulating an amended initiative petition.
Whatever route they take, Hackett said the goal is to have a measure on the June 2018 ballot. Napa County has no elections before then.
“We will not be deterred,” he said.
The Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Measure wades into an ongoing community debate about allowing hillside vineyards and other large developments amid forests in the county’s mountains. It would strengthen stream setback laws, limit the cutting of oaks and, in some cases, require county-issued permits to cut oaks.
Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers oppose it. The groups said that the county already has strong watershed protection laws.
Volunteers gathered 6,298 signatures last year, more than the 3,791 needed to qualify the measure for the November 2016 ballot. But Napa County voided the petition on a technicality.
The 18-page initiative petition circulated by proponents referenced an appendix in the 2010 Napa County Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan. But it didn’t include a copy of the appendix.
Whether it should have or not is the crux of the legal dispute. State law requires initiative petitions to include a full text of the proposed law, so people thinking of signing can make an informed decision.
Read more at: Appeals court backs Napa County in watershed initiative dispute | Local News | napavalleyregister.com

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Emergency ordinance to protect oak trees to be considered by San Luis Obispo supervisors

Lindsey Holden, THE SAN LUIS OBISPO TRIBUNE

The site where oaks and steep slopes were cleared for a vineyard is a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road owned by Estate Vinyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. — Justin Vineyards is one of the company’s brands.

Oaks are more than just trees in North County — to many, they’re a crucial part of the Central Coast’s delicate, drought-ridden ecosystem.
On Tuesday, that was the message dozens of farmers, residents and environmentalists delivered to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors as they protested the recent clear-cutting of hundreds — some speakers said thousands, based on their own investigations — of oak trees on land managed by Justin Vineyards & Winery, just west of Paso Robles.
Supervisors responded by taking the first steps toward adopting the county’s first-ever tree protection ordinance.
“There are people out there right now probably sharpening their chainsaws,” said Diane Burkhart, who presented the board with a petition signed by about 400 people requesting protections for oak trees.
The site under fire is a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road owned by Estate Vinyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. — Justin is one of the company’s brands.
After neighbors protested the tree removals and construction of a large water-storage pond on the property, the county issued a stop-work order on June 9. Officials said they’re evaluating potential penalties for grading violations, but not tree removal because the county has no oak protection ordinance in unincorporated areas.
After hearing more than an hour of often emotional public comments Tuesday from residents, supervisors said they were ready to move ahead after decades of false starts on oak ordinances.
Read more at: Emergency ordinance to protect oak trees to be considered by supervisors | The Tribune

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Resnicks’ deforestation ignites battle in SLO

Karen Velie, CAL COAST NEWS.COM
In the rolling hills that surround northern San Luis Obispo County communities, some farmers have planted grapes among the oaks. Locally, there has been an emphasis on stewardship of the land and protecting the oaks.
Almost 20 years ago, amid concerns sparked when the owners of Kendall Jackson winery bulldozed 843 oaks to create a vineyard in Santa Barbara County, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors discussed enacting an oak tree ordinance. However, a group of local farmers argued against the ordinance because they thought it would be onerous and in the past farmers had avoided clear cutting large swatches of oak trees.
But now, a group of farmers and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold say it is time to reconsider adopting an oak tree ordinance.
Prompted by the cutting of thousands of oak trees along with plans to create a 20-acre-foot agricultural reservoir that will drain millions of gallons of water out of the ground during a time of drought, many North County farmers no longer believe we can trust local property owners to self-regulate.
“This is the third property they have deforested,” said Matt Trevisan, with Linne Calodo Winery. “It is thousands of trees not hundreds. There is a bully in our county and they need to leave.”
Justin Vineyards and Winery, a company owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, violated a county code when it failed to get the permit required to grade on slopes in excess of 30 percent. Their company did submit a permit application for the construction of the water storage pond. However, the permit application stated no trees would be removed as a result of constructing the pond.
County staff responded to the violations with a stop work order.
“I am committed to providing more protection for our beautiful, native oaks,” Arnold said. “It is unfortunate we have to enact expensive and onerous regulation because not all landowners respect this amazing resource.”
Arnold said she contacted county Administrator Dan Buckshi and asked him to begin the process of bringing an oak tree ordinance proposal to the Board of Supervisors.
Following the clear cutting of oaks by Kendall Jackson winery, Santa Barbara County enacted an oak tree ordinance. That ordinance exempts oaks that are dead, within 50 feet of a home or are deemed dangerous. Property owners are then limited from removing more than a set amount of non-exempt oaks per acre, such as no more than 11 oak trees from a property between 800 to 899 acres.
“My goal is to bring forward an ordinance that includes common sense exemptions,” Arnold said. “I feel we need protection from this kind of abuse.”
While many bemoan the loss of our county’s forested lands, Resnicks neighbors fear the Resnicks will drain underground water sources to fill their reservoir, leaving their neighbors without the vital resource. And while several supporters of the failed Paso Robles water district claim its passage would have stopped the deforestation, the land Resnick recently deforested is outside the Paso Robles Basin’s boundaries.
Read more at: Resnicks’ deforestation ignites battle