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Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County 5th District Supervisor

Desperately Seeking Sustainable Tourism

Sep 27, 2017
by Lynda Hopkins, 5th District Supervisor - Sonoma County

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Economically speaking, tourism is a good thing. Unlike, say, oil extraction or coal mining, tourism is a non-extractive, renewable industry. At its best, tourism can provide local jobs while highlighting – and even helping to preserve and protect – natural resources. At its worst, tourism can strain public safety services and put pressure on a deteriorated rural road network.

How do we capture the best of the tourist industry, while addressing or limiting the impacts of ever-proliferating visitors? How do we find our way to sustainable tourism? (And what exactly does that mean, anyway?)

For those not engaged in the tourist industry, sometimes tourism seems full of downsides: increased traffic, lack of parking in small towns, trash left behind by visitors. Yet it’s important to remember that West County, in particular, has always been a tourist destination. And it’s also important to acknowledge that plenty of locals rely on tourism for their own financial security. I know single moms who rent out spare bedrooms through Airbnb to help pay their mortgage. (I also know parents who cultivate cannabis in their spare bedrooms, but that’s a topic for another article.) 

For a “glass half full” approach to tourism, consider the thoughts of a friend of mine who used to say that he always tried to live in tourist destinations, because he wanted to live in the beautiful places that other people pay to visit. Or consider the plight of rural counties across the United States of America, most of whom are desperate for economic development… and remember that we are lucky to be discussing the impacts of success, rather than watching entire towns wither and decay due to lack of jobs and shuttered businesses. 

But make no mistake. The impacts of tourism are real. As tourism continues to grow, our local fire agencies are being impacted by increased demands for services. Many of our firefighters flip pancakes and raffle off quilts to make ends meet, while transit occupancy tax (TOT) revenue pours in through local hotels, motels, and VRBOs. That’s why the Board of Supervisors is, for the first time, allocating a substantial portion of TOT revenue to support local fire agencies. $1 million of new TOT revenues (passed by voters last year) will go to support local fire agencies. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic is increasing on roads that were never designed to carry all those modes of transportation. As traffic flows intensify, interactions between different modes of transportation become more frequent. Interactions between vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians can be fatal. 

In Sebastopol, a vibrant young community member, Julie Riebli, was killed in a Bodega Avenue crosswalk by a motor vehicle. I want to be clear that there is no evidence right now that the accident was tourism related. But community members have noted that coastal tourist traffic has inundated West Sebastopol, and the community has asked that the City of Sebastopol and County of Sonoma consider implementing pedestrian safety and traffic calming measures. Similarly, the parents and staff of Guerneville Elementary School have noted a steadily increasing flow of traffic on Armstrong Woods Road, and are requesting a lighted crosswalk that would allow schoolchildren to more safely walk to school.

These are some of the reasons that I proposed the creation of a “Tourism Impact Mitigation Fund” utilizing TOT (Transit Occupancy Tax) revenue. This would enable the County to work with local communities to address some of the tourism impacts that we are facing. While I envision these funds being spent primarily in the unincorporated towns which are generating the TOT revenue, we also might consider looking at traffic calming on tourist-trafficked roads that run through residential communities (such as the outskirts of Sebastopol, or stretches of River Road where we experience a considerable amount of coastal tourism-related traffic). 

At the time of this writing, the Board of Supervisors has not yet voted on the policy implementation for the Tourism Impact Mitigation Fund. We are scheduled to do so on Tuesday, October 3. I’m hopeful that my colleagues on the Board will support measures to address tourism impacts in our rural areas. If you’re interested in participating in the decision, or have suggestions about how the money should be spent, consider attending the Board of Supervisors meeting.

And tell me: what do you think about tourism? Can we attain sustainable tourism in Sonoma County? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

If you have any thoughts or ideas about ways we can address the impacts of tourism, feel free to email me at lynda.hopkins@sonoma-county.org.

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