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Sonoma County Greenbelt Protections set to Expire


Sonoma County Greenbelt Protections set to Expire 

Boosting Greenbelt Protections in Sonoma County Voter-backed Community Separator Measures Expire Next Year

By Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance

Sonoma County risks losing long-term protections for green buffers between towns and cities that were passed with more than 70 percent of the countywide vote.  For more than 20 years, nearly 17,000 acres of open lands designated as “community separators” have prevented housing tracts and shopping malls from sprawling into precious green places.

Next year, the voter-backed measures that keep the community separators in place expire. We need to start now to convince county supervisors to develop a county ballot measure for next year’s general election that will renew, update and add priority greenbelt lands to community separator designations. 

The county community separator policies themselves don’t expire, but the voter-backed measures do. Without renewing the voter approved ordinances, we risk opening the door to new commercial development in our greenbelts with a simple majority vote of the board of supervisors.


NOTICE - I have heard that this agenda item has been postponed - please stay tned for future hearing date and time.

COMING UP SEPTEMBER 15: Please show your support for community separators and the need to go beyond just renewing the status quo! Write your supervisor and attend the September 15 afternoon session of the Board of Supervisors. They will review the work plan submitted by the Permit Resource and Management Department which calls only for a renewal of the status quo. They can do more now!


Greenbelt Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action and the conservation community is advocating for going beyond a simple renewal of the 20-year-old polices to update and strengthen community separator policies and boundaries based on science and community support.

The supervisors should consider community separator designations in high-value agriculture and natural resource lands such as groundwater recharge areas near urban areas that are at risk of development and where supported by science, communities and landowners.

The first key milestone will occur in September 2015 when the board of supervisors decide on a scope of work and public process for community separators in coming months.

Sonoma County Master Plan 2006 Greenbelt Hillsides

What is a Community Separator?

A total of eight community separators totaling nearly 17,000 acres are designated as community separators in Sonoma County.  They are companion measures in county lands to the urban growth boundaries around the cities, which set limits on the extent of urban development.

There are eight Community Separators totaling nearly 17,000 acres in Sonoma County:

1. Petaluma/ Novato (2,755 acres)

2. Petaluma/ Rohnert Park (3,360 acres)

3. Rohnert Park/ Santa Rosa (1,650 acres)

4. Santa Rosa/ Sebastopol (1,400 acres)

5. Windsor/ Larkfield/ Santa Rosa (2,000 acres)

6. Windsor/ Healdsburg (1,200 acres)

7. Northeast Santa Rosa (3,300 acres)

8. Glen Ellen/ Agua Caliente (1,400 acres)

The purpose of community separators is three-fold—they serve as green buffers between communities, contain urban development, and preserve the rural charm of Sonoma County’s landscape.  By preventing large-scale development, community separators also preserve farms and ranches, creeks and streams, groundwater, trees and plants, wildlife and contribute to climate resiliency.

The Community Separators policies are contained in the Land Use and Open Space elements of the General Plan. As defined in the Sonoma County General Plan, Community Separators are lands that function as rural open space to separate cities and other communities, to contain urban development, and to provide city and community identity by providing visual relief from continuous urbanization.

The policies are implemented through county zoning as on overlay that keeps existing zoning in place. The overlay allows agricultural operations but generally prevents subdivision and commercialization of community separator lands to maintain rural character. The community separator zoning may apply to lands zoned for no less than 1 unit per 10 acres.

In 1996, Sonoma County voters passed a measure placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors that prevents decreasing the size or protections for community separators without a vote of the people. However, the board may increase the size and make additional designations without a vote, which they have never done.

The Sonoma County General Plan has already prioritized lands for consideration for community separator designation that are long overdue:

1. Priority greenbelts identified in the acquisition plan of the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space Preservation District.

2. Cloverdale area lands that extend toward Healdsburg.

3. Penngrove area lands on the edge of Petaluma, Cotati and Rohnert Park.

Science and mapping conducted over the past 20 years shows that community separators have protected important natural resources such as farming and grazing lands, groundwater basins, creeks and streams, native plants and trees and wildlife habitat. These natural values should be considered in the community separator renewal and updating.

Taylor Mountain development against a community separator

Community Separator Allows Ag Operations and Development

Community separators allow for agricultural operations and limited commercial development if certain conditions are met.  This is why projects like the proposed Dairyman Winery project in the Santa Rosa – Sebastopol Community Separator is technically allowed.  Today’s controversies about large scale event centers on agricultural lands were probably not envisioned when these policies were written 20 years ago.  

The polices also allow commercial development to occur if it is deemed to be a public benefit and meets certain conditions such as screening buildings and avoiding hilltop construction. The conditions also require preservation of open space. 

Such a trade-off was at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa when it was allowed to expand in exchange for 7.5 acres dedicated as permanent open space in 2004 within the Windsor/Larkfield/Santa Rosa Community Separator. The Tom Schopflin Fields in the same Community Separator were allowed as a result of the community benefit.

Reviewing these policies to ensure that community separators continue to serve their function and not be eroded project-by-project seems prudent as part of the renewal and review process.

Explore Sonoma’s Community Separators

Explore the community separators and urban growth boundaries near you with this interactive map courtesy of the Sonoma County planning department.

You can also use the Greenbelt mapper by choosing “community separator” layer under “Policy Protections.

Greenbelt Alliance  presented to the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission about community separators on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at the City Council Chambers, 177 First St. W. Sonoma. 

Take Action

Help us convince Sonoma County’s supervisors that they must go beyond a simple renewal of 20-year-old community separators. They must renew and update community separators to include priority greenbelts, protect natural resources and designate at-risk lands around Cloverdale and Penngrove as identified in the General Plan. Please write or call your supervisor and if you can - attend the September 15th afteron session when they will review and approve a work plan for community separator renewals.

If you’d like to get involved in the campaign to renew and update Sonoma County’s community separator polices, contact Teri Shore at or call her at 707-575-3661.

We need people who know the lands and landowners so we can identify the best opportunities for protecting greenbelts in between our towns and cities!

Sign up for our email to stay up to date on Greenbelt Alliance’s work in maintaining and enhancing Sonoma County’s natural and agricultural lands.

Please contact your supervisor to make sure they know where you stand on this issue.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
575 Administration Drive, Rm 100A
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Telephone: 707-565-2241
Fax: 707-565-3778

1st District:
Susan Gorin

2nd District:
David Rabbitt
3rd District:
Shirlee Zane
4th District:
James Gore
5th District:
Efren Carrillo



Excellent STORY on the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission meeting,  covered in the Kenwood Press


Santa Rosa - Sebastopol Community Separator


Windsor - Larkfield - Santa Rosa Community Separators