Community engagement is what makes our rural communities work
Driving through the rain in West County can be an adventure at times. Passing fields that are now ponds, dodging deep puddles on uneven roads, looking out for downed trees, navigating dark, redwood lined roads without streetlights, all these images highlight how different it is to live in a rural area.
From the redwoods to the coast we live surrounded by incredible beauty. Our economy is one of local producers from food to retail. While our roads can be challenging, we have escaped gridlock traffic. Because we don’t live in cities with robust services, the community comes together to help each other more than anyplace I’ve ever lived before.
As one Timber Cove resident reported this week. “On my way home the road was blocked by a downed tree. I knew it would take forever to back up and go the alternate route, and EMS services are overtaxed during storms and I’d be waiting here for hours. So I called Eric and he came out with his chainsaw and cut that tree away for me.” That community action and engagement is what makes rural areas work. And what makes it special. If you are one of the many new rural residents coming up from the Bay Area or farther afield, we hope you’ll become part of this tapestry of engaged community members. Getting involved with local nonprofits, participating in or listening to the River or Coast Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) meetings, or even subscribing to the District 5 newsletter to get local information, is a good place to start.
One of the challenges presented by the rapid rise of short term vacation rentals is that some neighborhoods are losing that pool of engaged neighbors that make rural living workable. Instead empty houses are punctuated by short term visitors that don’t understand the issues such as making sure there is enough room on the road for fire and ems vehicles to pass. That is why I advocated for a cap on new vacation rentals while county staff developed new guidelines to allow for such rentals while also protecting our rural neighborhoods. At the last River MAC meeting Gary Helfrich of Permit Sonoma gave an excellent overview of how these new guidelines are taking shape.
The video of this meeting (https://youtu.be/Rgv2xRftC4k) is available on the Sonoma County 5th District youtube channel.
One of the things I love about our towns is that local shopping does not mean fighting traffic to get to big box stores or strip malls for the latest mass produced item. Our foods come from farms and animals that you pass on your everyday commute. While such purchases may not be able to compete with the cost and convenience of Amazon, every dime spent on locally made, one-of-a-kind items helps support our small businesses who are your neighbors and friends.
Another challenge with rural living is the lack of access to critical services. This month I was delighted to tour the new West County Health Center facility in downtown Guerneville. This hospital-rated building not only will provide the full range of medical, dental, vision, and health services for the area, it will also have a community center focused on community wellness. It's exciting to report that WCHC may be able to open this new state-of-the-art facility early as March of this year. The health team and I discussed how we could also increase the access between West County towns to this center and will be working on these ideas in the coming months. In other small town services news, in December the Board of Supervisors approved my funding request for a Russian River strategic plan which will help us analyze service resources of all kinds against regional needs in order to pinpoint gaps and possible solutions. As the community outreach portions of this unfurl in the summer of 2022, please do set time to participate as such opportunities become available. Every voice is important in this process. It’s by engaging and working with local communities that we can strengthen our rural communities.
As member of the Sonoma County Emergency Services Ad Hoc committee, we have been working hard to find funding and organizational changes such as consolidation in order to strengthen our fire and emergency services. We have funded red flag up staffing efforts, enhanced services, and are poised to sign long-term funding contracts with local fire agencies to support consolidation efforts later this month. The results of this effort were felt during the last fire season, when we witnessed rapid and full responses to put out a record number of small fires in record time. We look forward to finalizing the funding contracts to strengthen and consolidate Bodega Bay fire and other districts.
While the County Supervisorial redistricting process was contentious at times, ultimately the 5th District retained its rural nature, parted ways with Moorland and Roseland, and welcomed new neighborhoods in northwest Santa Rosa. Our new Supervisorial districts, based on the map voted for on Dec. 14, have already taken effect. We have spent a lot of time working side by side with our communities in Roseland and Moorland and will miss them. We also celebrate with them as they will be part of a stronger voting block for Latinx and BIPOC voices in the 3rd District. Our entire District 5 team looks forward to getting to know our new constituents that were added to our district in this process. The County will be sending out map information to inform County residents of changes.
We live in West County because we value being so close to nature. And we see the impacts of climate change in drought, floods, and changes to our watersheds, our coastline, our forests. District Director Leo Chyi and I returned from the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow filled with ideas and determination to bring policies that will protect and preserve our natural environment and those systems upon which our way of life depend. We are working in concert with Supervisors Rodoni in Marin and Williams in Mendocino to create a tri-county coastal protection initiative. The Russian River revitalization program is rolling out through the spring of 2022 and is focusing on returning the watershed to full health and vitality. The drops of rain that nurture our gardens and fill our reservoirs also create issues of roads slippage and trees falling. Yes, rural living has its own unique set of joys and challenges. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.