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Sonoma County open space

OPINION: Chumping Conservationists

Jun 27, 2018

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By Duane Dewitt

Carol Benfell wrote an excellent summary of how some local people in Sonoma County worked hard to conserve some beautiful natural surroundings we are blessed to have here. We need to keep in mind vigilance is necessary if we are going to be able protect our lovely area from an onslaught of development in the future.

Conservationists is a term coined over a hundred years ago in the “Progressive Era” of the late 1800s. It was applied to people who wanted to conserve nature as it was, without human intervention to “improve” the land. Nature conservationists such as John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt advocated tirelessly to conserve, protect, and restore nature in the face of relentless pressure to develop and “improve” land for profit.

Ms. Benfell chronicled there were local residents in Sonoma County in the mid twentieth century who stood up as nature conservationists without backing down in the face of stiff opposition from land developers. Some stalwarts helped to have the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District formed by voter approval of a ballot initiative. This organization uses the legal approach of a “conservation easement” to acquire development rights to land and keep it from being developed.

Local land use controls supported by Sonoma County nature conservationists have helped to conserve the beautiful bucolic landscapes of our beloved county. But now under the guise of “post fire” reconstruction the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors are loosening the controls. This will enrich approximately 1700 landowners in the county who will be allowed to build another full sized house on their “rural” land. Prior to this recent change only one house or dwelling unit was allowed on each acre and a half sized parcel in these specific unincorporated areas of the county. Now nature conservationists need to look more deeply into how and what will become of their decades-long efforts to conserve nature in Sonoma County from the often very negative effects of more housing development in the rural areas. 

Before delving deeper into the ramifications of this decision by the Board of Supervisors realize they are also the Directors of the “Open Space District”. (www.sonomaopenspace.org). Also please keep in mind housing and the location of buildings has direct environmental effects.

“Protected forever” state signs often posted on land purchased by Sonoma County taxpayers as “Open Space” or “Agricultural Preserves.” A typical taxpayer might think open space is about green natural places and they will stay this way forever once preserved with taxpayer money. But over the quarter of a century the “District” has existed there has been a bit of “mission creep.” Essentially the District is a real estate acquisition organization and open space can be hardscape, paved over places also, according to both District employees and some Supervisors. While some nature conservationists have been focused on the big picture of saving the earth, Sonoma County and its main city Santa Rosa has been experiencing big population growth.

Local nature conservationists have nowhere near the political power of land developers. Land developers can include not just for profit home builders, but also non-profit “affordable housing” developers. Plus other governmental agencies such as the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) organization. SMART was brought into existence with the blessing of local “environmentalists” who believe automobile use will decline due to trains running from Cloverdale to Larkspur in Marin County. Perhaps this may come true, but one way in which conservationists and environmentalists are being led down the garden path is with the SMART organization using Open Space District monies to help purchase land which is then paved over with asphalt for bicycle riders and pedestrians to use. Many, many acres of asphalt.

Another unfortunate circumstance is the Open Space District allows cities and towns which are given matching grants to be able to have a large percentage of land acquired to be covered with hardscape. The matching grant program has been a boon to local cities and towns to buy land which frequently should have been purchased with their own monies to provide green space and parks. Santa Rosa is the biggest player in this type of activity and has a dubious distinction of buying very expensive rural residential properties and then demolishing the houses existing on the properties.

The first example was Bayer Farm where a nice Farm House was destroyed and many yards of concrete were laid down. Now Santa Rosa is at this again using Open Space funds to buy more houses at top prices which it will then demolish. All of this while declaring a homeless emergency and dislocating rent paying senior citizens from their residences. At the Sonoma County Budget hearings just wrapped up Supervisor Zane pointed out there was another $60 million available for these types of purchases. She supports more of this type of costly spending and wants it to begin sooner than later. This discussion will be elaborated upon next month in another installment with more specifics.

Watch for Exploiting Environmentalists.

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