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The Eye of the Beholder 

Must Sonoma County's open space be sacrificed for growth?

By Joy Lanzendorfer

"Do we want to house tiger salamanders or do we want to house people? Do we want to house kangaroo rats or do we want to house people? Because that's literally what this debate is about," says Michael Pattinson, former president of the California Building Industry Association. "But the debate is never framed that way. It's always framed as, do we want to support the environment or do we want to destroy the environment? No one in their right mind is going to vote for a bill that wants to destroy the environment."

Right or wrong, Pattinson's view is a common one, although it's usually dismissed as the opinion of greedy businessmen who want to pave the entire state and put up strip malls (Pattinson is, after all, president of Barratt American, real estate developers based in San Diego). Beyond the special interests, though, more subtle questions about how environmentalism affects housing, particularly the availability of affordable housing for the low-income population, gets lost in the shuffle.

But these questions are important in Sonoma County, which seems to be changing before our eyes. Not quite a farm community anymore, not quite the wealthy bedroom community of Marin County, and not known solely for its wine industry the way Napa County is, Sonoma County has an unclear future, and many are apprehensive about it.

With all the changes, much of what attracts thousands of newcomers to the county every year seems threatened. Will the county's natural beauty lose out to development? Will people be squeezed out of the land, leaving it only for the wealthy? Will the rugged individualism that drew such diverse groups in the first place be sapped as the county changes into just another suburb of San Francisco? Every day it seems like there's a new fight over where we're heading as a community and what we're becoming.

And what fights they are. Every potential change to the landscape is fought tooth and nail. Opponents are protesting a casino proposed by the Coast Miwok Indians because of increased traffic and loss of open space. A high-end 124-unit apartment complex in the foothills of Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood gained city council support last month despite protests over disrupting the fault line and removing trees.

Sonoma National Golf Course owners dropped their plan for a $30 million hotel after heated public debate over traffic, water, and ruined scenery, though the owners blamed the lagging economy. Outside Rohnert Park, a church's plan to add a school complex was opposed over water concerns. And the emergency endangered listing of the tiger salamander threatens as yet unknown numbers of projects.

But perhaps the best example of the issue is the Laguna Vista housing project in Sebastopol, which would include much-needed affordable housing units. In this fight, it's not the developers against activists so much as the affordable-housing advocates against environmentalists.

Affordable-housing attorney David Grabill said that he would sue the city of Sebastopol if it doesn't approve the project. Now environmental lawyer Rose Zoia has written an ominous letter to the city saying that Sebastopol needs to carry out a study on the project's affect on the scenic wetlands, or it could be in violation of its own policies.

"Sebastopol has the worst record of any city in the county for providing affordable housing, and [it] has one of the highest housing prices," says Grabill. "There are few places within the urban growth boundaries that allow for as many units as Laguna Vista does."

But Grabill doesn't see the Laguna Vista conflict as affordable-housing advocates against environmentalists. In fact, his client, Sonoma County Housing Advocacy Group, regularly works with environmentalists to promote affordable housing.

"I think it's affordable housing people against people who are trying to prevent growth," he says. "Some of those antigrowth people have environmental reasons, and others just like things they way they are. And I don't condemn that. Everyone wants their neighborhoods to stay the way they are."

Yet Sonoma County itself is changing. And as the changes continue, the questions of why these issues are so big and what we can do about them continue to emerge.

A Brief History

Environmentalism has always been a part of California history. Since agriculture has so defined the state, environmental factors like water use and irrigation have shaped the way communities are set up and how land is treated.

One only has to look at smog-soaked Los Angeles to know why Californians are concerned about the environment. But environmental destruction was a concern as far back as the Gold Rush. Driven by greed, the gold miners did major damage to the landscape, demolishing entire mountains and flooding the water with so much dirt that the San Francisco Bay turned reddish-brown from the Sierra Nevada foothill's tawny red dirt.

It's not surprising, then, that in the late 19th century, environmental groups began to form as a reaction to these problems. In 1892 naturalist John Muir founded the Sierra Club.

"From the very beginning, there was a split in the environmentalism," says Kerwin Lee Klein, Ph.D., associate professor of history at UC Berkeley. "You can even see it in John Muir himself. There was the John Muir that wanted to save as much wild land as possible and who felt that wild land was intrinsically better than any other land. And then there was the John Muir who was a sheep herder and a logger and had a Victorian homestead in Martinez, and who promoted a more comfortable, pastoral landscape."

This split, seen in one of the forefathers of environmentalism, followed through into two factions of environmentalists: the conservationists, who promoted wise use of land; and the preservationists, who wanted to preserve as much land as possible, usually in large lots, like the Sierra Nevada or the Teton Range. This split follows through today, believes Klein.

In the late '60s and early '70s, hiking became a popular mainstream hobby among white suburbanites in the U.S. for the first time, leading to increased interest in the natural parks and green spaces. A third group emerged from the conservationists and the preservationists. Instead of preserving large amounts of land like Death Valley, this group wants to preserve smaller lots of land around their neighborhoods.

"There's a variety of reasons behind preserving pieces of land," says Klein. "Some believe the worst possible thing is sprawl, and so they want to avoid it as much as possible with concentrated city-centered urban areas with a greenbelt around it. Others live near a green space and think it would be pretty damned nice to be able to go hiking in their backyard.

"And let's face it," he adds. "It's nice for property values."

Beauty Hurts

Chances are, one of the first words on anyone's lips when describing Sonoma County is "beautiful." By all accounts, we live in one of the most beautiful places in California. Part of that beauty comes from the rich soil, in which almost everything seems to grow, so much so that Luther Burbank called Sonoma County "the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned." Combine the abundance of vegetation with rolling hills, the ocean, and a near perfect climate, and it's no wonder so many people want to live here.

The beauty is the reason for all the fuss. Some people look for ways to capitalize on the beauty, and others look for ways to protect it.

"The tension over land in Sonoma County isn't between environmentalism and affordable housing or even environmentalists and developers," says developer Alan Strachan. "The tension is the whole concept of beauty. No one wants to live here if it's ugly."

One of the things that ensures the protection of our beautiful landscape is the designation of open space, which is handled by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. In 1990 voters authorized the creation of the district and allowed a quarter percent of all sales tax to go to the acquisition of agricultural land use and open space over a 20-year period. With a budget of approximately $17 million a year, the district has so far preserved 57,400 acres, including recent acquisitions of the 160-acre Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve near Sonoma Mountain and 335 acres along Highway 1 north of Bodega Bay.

"We face a future of unprecedented challenges--escalating land values and increasing pressure on farmland, open space, and wildlife habitat," says Andrea Mackenzie, general manager of the district. "Every acre we preserve is an investment in Sonoma County's future. By preserving land today, we protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. We protect pristine habitat for our wildlife to thrive, and we preserve places for people to recreate and rejuvenate."

Open space gives wild species a chance to thrive undisturbed and protects our ecosystem while preserving the beauty of the area. And according to Mackenzie, removing land from the general market for the benefit of all doesn't affect the cost of land because planning allows for both open spaces and housing.

"It's the general plan that guides where development should occur, while identifying other lands with valuable agricultural, open space, and habitat features that are appropriate for preservation," she says.

But others disagree that open space has no affect on the general cost of housing. For example, Marin County land comprises of 84 percent open space and agriculture, 11 percent developed land, and 5 percent undeveloped land, according to the county of Marin. The median home price hovers around $700,000. Though other factors, such as large lots with single-family homes, may also contribute to the cost of housing, the general laws of supply and demand suggest that removing such a large percentage of the land from development must affect the cost of housing.

"The land is so constrained in Marin, there are very few places for home building of any kind," says Bob Ragle, land acquisition director of Christopherson Homes in Santa Rosa. "When you put all these constraints on housing, whether it be limiting land or other constraints, it drives up the cost."

Back to the Land

But environmental groups say that the problem isn't open space in Marin as much as how the land is used.

"I would ask what Marin is doing with the 16 percent of the land that can be developed," says Tim Frank of the Sierra Club. "Is it developed into large-lot subdivisions that are obviously not affordable for most people? In the North Bay, too much of the area is covered by high-end homes which house only one family, when it could have been made into affordable housing, which houses 20 to 40 families."

Large-lot homes, while providing the most profit for developers and real estate agents, also shut out the majority of homebuyers and privatize the land for individuals. That, most environmentalists say, contributes more to the problem than open spaces when it comes to the high cost of housing.

Many environmental groups like the Sierra Club embrace affordable housing as something that leads to more efficient land use, and is therefore part of good environmental planning.

"To us, affordable housing is an environmental issue," says Janet Stone, director of Greenbelt Alliance's Livable Communities Program. "There is a direct and positive connection between affordable housing and protecting land, air, and water [quality]."

The entire heart of Paris could fit into the urban boundaries of Santa Rosa, leaving a lot of existing land that could be developed in favor of branching out into new, previously undeveloped areas. The idea behind developing the urban growth boundaries--which were approved in Santa Rosa in 1996--is that the land within the designated boundary should be used before developers move into green space.

"The analogy I like to use is that we could pave over Golden Gate Park and build housing, and that would solve San Francisco's housing problem for a while, but after a while the housing prices would go up again and we wouldn't have Golden Gate Park anymore," says Peter Ashcroft from the Sierra Club's Sonoma Group. "We have a lot of untapped potential in Santa Rosa and should make urban areas more efficient before moving into open space."

Ideally, groups like Greenbelt Alliance and Sierra Club favor a model with a developed town center surrounded by a greenbelt. In this model, affordable housing would be built close to work places so that people could walk or bicycle to work. The surrounding areas would be devoted to open space and agriculture, and people would not be able to branch out on their own. Not only would there be no more large-lot homes, there would be few homes with pastures and gardens that weren't related to farming.

"There have to be trade-offs," says Stone. "We can't say that everyone should do what they want to. If we did, society wouldn't function. People should have choices, but that doesn't have to encourage and support expansion into open spaces for individuals. That's different than working on a farm."

Antigrowth and NIMBYs

The majority of environmentalists are not antigrowth. Most are interested in working with the business community to create a better quality of life for humans and the creatures we share this planet with. However, you can't really talk about this issue without mentioning the faction of extremists who don't seem to want any growth at all.

"Many elements of the environmental community just seem to want whatever isn't developed to remain that way forever, regardless of economic impact," says Mike Falasco of the Wine Institute, an industry lobby group in Sacramento.

The six environmentalists interviewed for this article were reluctant to talk on record about the antigrowth faction of their movement. Environmentalists that won't compromise on issues can actually negatively affect communities, especially the little guys, such as small-business owners and low-income workers. It can simply be too much of a good thing.

Although Humboldt County has had some success in protecting the ecological wonders of its area--the redwoods and marine life--some claim that its economy has been devastated by the gutting of its two major industries, logging and fishing.

Jim Worthen, who served on the Eureka City Council for 16 years, says, "Hardly anyone is making a living in those industries anymore. The main jobs are in the service industry, which means jobs like logging, which pay $15 to $16 an hour, have been replaced with jobs paying $6.75 an hour."

With all the distraction of tree sitters and spotted owls, Humboldt's devastated economy gets overlooked, says Worthen.

"Activists come here from Florida or New York or somewhere else, and they have no idea what's going on here or what the economy is like," he says. "The worst part about it is that when our young people graduate from high school and want to find a good-paying job, they can't find one. They have to leave the county."

But Humboldt County, unlike Sonoma County, has never developed a diversified economy, and it could be argued that if an industry is destructive, other industries should take its place in the economy.

Another more prevalent culprit on the antigrowth side of the ring is the "not in my back yard," or NIMBY, mentality.

NIMBYs have a variety of reasons for restricting development. Many like their neighborhoods the way they are and fear change. Others are racist and don't want their children mingling with children of color, or they're elitist and don't want their children talking to poor people.

Some fear increased crime rates. Some think affordable housing is ugly or they don't want their view disrupted. Others don't want to be bothered with increased traffic or the noise and disruption of construction. They have different reasons and they come from different political backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: They understand that it needs to be done, but they want it done somewhere else.

It can sometimes be hard to spot NIMBYs, who may join up with environmental groups to keep development from their neighborhood, though their motivations are more selfish.

"I'm a little suspicious of folks who bought a house 20 years ago for one price and now that it's worth $6 million, they don't want affordable housing [nearby]," says Klein. "It seems a little self-serving to me, a little too much like they're worried about their property value."

Balancing Act

Have we ever done it right in California? Has a community ever achieved a balance between the much-needed green space and cheaper housing? The answer may lie in the least likely place: San Jose.

"There is a terrible affordable-housing problem in Silicon Valley, but San Jose has a great city program that encourages the redevelopment of those lands," says Frank of the Sierra Club. "They are rezoning to make some really good, strong neighborhoods there, while at the same time leaving a good urban growth boundary. They are providing housing while protecting wildlife, proving that it's possible and desirable to do both."

But Santa Rosa isn't San Jose, or any other community. Its problems and history are unique and the solution may be hard to find. One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that all groups--environmentalists, social activists, and the business community alike-- need to work together to solve the problem.

"We can prevent sprawl through careful planning, and it doesn't have to be done with guerrilla warfare, where I'm trying to defeat the environmentalists and they are trying to defeat me," says Pattinson. "There are ways for everyone to get what they want."

[ | Metroactive Central | ]

From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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