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Sonoma County Gazette
Sonoma County General Plan

Sonoma County:
The Plan That Changed Everything

May 30, 2018


By Carol Benfell

The Sonoma County we know and love might never have been.

By the late 1960s, ranches and farms countywide were zoned and subdivided into 5-acre ranchettes.

Development surged as people streamed into the county on a newly improved Highway 101.

The Coast was a potential Malibu Beach with expensive homes dotting the shoreline and little or no public access.

A corridor of urban sprawl from Healdsburg to Petaluma was in the making, without consideration of environmental impacts or scenic values.

One document stopped that in its tracks.

Forty years ago, Sonoma County Supervisors signed off on the first-ever County General Plan, a blueprint that would guide land use, development and environmental and scenic protection for the next 25 years.

The policies and land uses adopted in 1978 have made Sonoma County what it is today, with forests, coastal beaches, ranches and vineyards, and the beauty of a landscape that attracts people from around the world.

It was revolutionary, it was controversial, it was a political hot button -- and some who supported it paid a high personal price.

“It took a lot of courage. People took chances politically. People staked their careers on it,” said Walter Kieser, who worked on the first General Plan.

A recall election led by pro-development forces ousted two supervisors in June 1976. Supervisors Bill Kortum and Chuck Hinkle were replaced by pro-growth conservatives Robert Theiller and Wayne Bass.

The new conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors quickly replaced George Kovatch, the planning director, with a more conservative director.Twenty-four of the 27 planners working on the General Plan lost their jobs, including Kieser. “Their platform was eliminating the General Plan,” said Kieser, who went on to form his own consulting firm. “They were explicitly for the notion we should look like San Jose.”

Laid-off planners staged a public mock funeral of the draft General Plan at Kovatch’s house– complete with small wooden coffin and burial.

But the funeral was premature.

Six months later, in November 1976, voters returned a pro-General Plan majority to the Board of Supervisors with the election of Brian KahnHelen Rudee and Eric Koenigshofer.

Three planners – Richard Retecki, Toby Ross, and Richard Lehtinen – coaxed the General Plan through two more years of rewriting and revisions until the Board approved it in January 1978. 

“It was unique because of the environmental elements and a sensibility that the county could only handle so much growth. It’s the reason the character of this place remains true,” said Retecki, who went on to become Project Manager at the State Coastal Conservancy.

The process had taken seven years -- five years of information gathering, mapping and writing, two years of massive reviews and revisions, and seven different sketch plans, before the Sonoma County General Plan and its accompanyingEnvironmental Resources Managements summary and Land Use Plan were adopted.

In the process, every acre of Sonoma County had been mapped, photographed, and its important features identified. Census tracts were overlain with environmental landscape data to determine best uses. “We colored hundreds of maps and attended what seemed to be endless presentations. In the end, it was worth it” Retecki said.

County residents became involved.

A 35-member citizens’ General Plan Advisory Committee and a 17-member citizens’ Transportation Advisory committee met regularly to weigh in at every stage of the planning. Hundreds of community meetings gave people a chance to comment on the draft Plan.

Planners drew their inspiration from an innovative planning approach created by Ian McHarg, founder of the Regional Planning Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His book,“Design with Nature,” was the first to suggest integrating environmental resources into planning, and projecting the impact of development on the landscape.

County Supervisors were presented with seven alternatives for future growth, with projected populations ranging from 380,000 to 630,000 by the year 2000. Each alternative was described in terms of its impact on public services, public safety, transportation, preservation of agricultural, recreational and scenic areas, housing, the economy, air quality, and conservation of open space.

Supervisors opted for slow growth and aimed for 430,000 population by the year 2000. The 2000 census reported the actual number as 458,600.

“I’m not aware of any other county that did such a comprehensive analysis,” Retecki said. “The State required nine general plan elements, we did 15. We had a vision of the county before us, and a natural landscape that was diverse & unique.”

The policies established in the first General Plan led directly to a series of ballot measures:

The Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District --Approved by voters in 1990, and renewed in 2006, the District was created to permanently protect greenbelts, scenic viewsheds, farms, ranches and natural areas, and is funded by a one-quarter cent sales tax.

Urban growth boundaries – In 1996, Sonoma County voters became the first in the nation to establish boundary lines around cities to limit sprawl. The boundaries were renewed by voters in 2016 for another 20 years.

Community separators – Voters in 1996 approved community separators, a ballot measure requiring the county to designate greenbelts of open space around each city. It was renewed in 2016 for another 20 years.

Cityhood for Windsor – The 1992 creation of the Town of Windsor allowed housing and development otherwise limited by urban growth boundaries of other cities. 

The Sonoma Land Trust –The non-profit was formed in 1976 to purchase or obtain easements for habitat preservation and restoration. It became instrumental in leveraging the efforts of the Open Space District and their partners. Together, they have permanently protected more than 100,000 acres. In 1978, Regional Parks consisted of 10 parks totaling 2,613 acres. Today, there are 52 parks and more than 12,000 acres of parkland.

There have been revisions through the years, but the first General Plan still shapes Sonoma County and the lives of those who live here.

“Was it a success? Yes. It was transformational,” Kieser said. “It was a group of very young idealists and the leadership of a few visionaries. We did something quite remarkable, and we changed the course of County history.”


The land use principles created in the first General Plan have shaped the county from its adoption in 1978 to the present day. “People have held and enhanced the values all these years,” said Richard Retecki, one of the planners on the first General Plan.

The first General Plan principles were: 

1. Promote compact urban growth

2. Promote community centered growth

3. Accommodate a diversity of lifestyle opportunities, urban and rural.

4. Preserve agricultural land and encourage agricultural diversity

5. Utilize environmental criteria to locate rural growth and guide urban growth

6. Accommodate growth in a rationally based manner (in planning public services, for example)

7. Develop an ongoing open-space program around and within cities

8. Create a funding mechanism to conserve and preserve environmental values and public access

More than two dozen people worked for more than seven years to create Sonoma County’s first General Plan. Their names are not well-known, but together they created a document that established polices and a balance between urban and open space areas that made the county what it is today.

NEXT TASK - Updating the General Plan for future generations - GENERAL PLAN 2030


Jun 12, 2018
Very interesting article.
- Gilbert Fleming
Jun 14, 2018
VIA EMAIL: RP’s New 20 year general plan who will it exclude? Like many Rohnert Park residents, I have enjoyed the vacant lot on LaBath Street behind Ashley furniture for years. It represented the last little patch of the wild in a city that’s growing in a direction many of us fear is weeding out us local residents. My dog Jack and I got to know the family of Jack Rabbits that have lived on that patch for countless generations. Every spring they would frolic before breeding then behold, the babies of a new generation would soon arrive. It was our way of enjoying and being a part of nature’s remarkable cycle of life. This spring there was no joy. A hotel broke ground right around the time those babies were to be born. I wire fence was erected and the ground movers starting destroying their habitat. All I could do was watch in horror as I knew the fate of this last generation. We have not seen our rabbit friends since. Yesterday, to my horror, I saw one of the jackrabbits exposed, in broad daylight in the middle of the afternoon looking for a way out. He was in the asphalt parking lot in the enclosure. The little rabbit is emaciated and desperate to live. I tried to think of a way to get him but as wild is, it wouldn’t let me approach and it ran back into the empty dried out field they plowed down where there is no food or water left to sustain it. He is trapped with nowhere to go. As a resident of this city, I too feel like that jackrabbit. Being displaced by corporate interests for the sake of having a better city at the expense of those already established here? Will RP’s new 20-year general plan take away the Rancho Verde mobile home park, leaving three hundred middle to low-income families homeless like those poor jackrabbits? I’m sure there are a thousand people or more living in the park. Like those Jackrabbits, will our families be eradicated too? Will our land be sold to the highest bidder for the sake of having a better money-making venture for someone else to enjoy? Waiting for an answer, Margaret Cantwell / RP resident
- Vesta Copestakes

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