Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District Launches Vital Lands Initiative
In 1990, through the foresight of community leaders and thoughtful citizens, Sonoma County voters approved the creation of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and a quarter-cent sales tax that provides funding for land conservation, including planning, acquisition, and stewardship of the region’s working, natural, and scenic open space lands. Over two and a half decades later, the District is one of the leading farmland and open space preservation programs in the nation with a mission to preserve the best of Sonoma County’s agricultural and natural resources. In 2015, the District celebrated 25 years of preserving the region’s agricultural heritage by protecting working farms and ranches, and maintaining the health and beauty of the county through the conservation of scenic hillsides, greenbelts, and natural resource lands.
General Manager Bill Keene has been with the District for nine years. “While we are proud of our accomplishments, our most important successes are yet to come,” says Keene. “As we look ahead to the next 15 years, we face exceptional challenges – population growth, escalating land values, drought, increased pressure on farmland, open space, and wildlife habitat, and the growing impacts of climate change.”
Blueprint for a Green Future
With these multiple challenges in mind, the District is embarking on the Vital Lands Initiative, a comprehensive plan that will guide the organization’s work for the next 15 years. The Vital Lands Initiative will use the best available science, data and technical information to identify and develop robust strategies for prioritizing conservation goals in the areas of agricultural protection, natural resources, scenic views and greenbelt areas, recreation and public access, and urban open space within communities.
A collaborative process, the Vital Lands Initiative will seek input from the entire community through public meetings, technical workshops, stakeholder interviews, polling, community event outreach, and online channels such as the District’s website, social media networks, and e-newsletter. Such community input and engagement will be key to developing insightful strategies for conserving important open space lands that preserve the region’s agricultural heritage, provide critical habitat for plants and wildlife, offer beautiful places for people to enjoy, and create buffers around cities so that communities retain their unique character. Its digital format will save trees and allow the plan to be quickly and easily updated as new information and data emerge, and threats and opportunities evolve.
Healthy Lands, Thriving Communities
As a result of the District’s work, the Sonoma County community can take pride in its vision for conservation and its investments in over 111,000 acres of working lands and natural areas. The District has helped to provide nearly 12,000 acres of protected land open for public recreation, including helping to create 32 new parks, preserves, and public spaces. The District has also purchased 7,350 acres of land that has been added to existing State and Regional Parks. Moreover, the District has protected nearly every mountain adjacent to the county’s major urban centers, including Fitch Mountain (Healdsburg), Taylor Mountain (Santa Rosa), and Montini Open Space Preserve (Sonoma) – offering opportunities for residents to get outdoors and experience the region’s natural beauty.
The District has protected thousands of acres of land that contribute to healthy watersheds, ecosystems, and groundwater basins that provide clean, abundant drinking water for our community, and critical habitats for sensitive, threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Further, by working with farmers and ranchers to safeguard their land from the threat of subdivision and development, the District contributes to a thriving $650 million agricultural economy that features artisanal cheeses and dairy products, free-range meat and poultry, organic produce, world-class wine, and more.
As a community-envisioned, voter-approved land conservation and stewardship organization, the District’s work reflects the values of Sonoma County residents. The District looks forward to working with the community to prioritize conservation of our region’s vital open space lands. For more information on the Vital Lands Initiative, including the dates and locations of the community meetings to take place in March, please visit sonomaopenspace.org/vital-lands.