Sonoma County and its residents have become victims of too many cumulative impacts. We have backroads with too many wineries and valleys with not enough water. We’ve had tons of illegal cannabis for decades and are now fighting to figure out how to make it legal and grow it in the right places. Farmers need lawyers and land use consultants just to plant a crop or plow a hillside. We’ve had a generation-long debate about preserving our rural character but we can’t even agree on what the term exactly means.
We may be at a crossroads as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are now rebooting our cannabis cultivation debate and next week we will get a first look at a proposed Winery Event Ordinance that has been seven years in the making. Climate change, a drought and a yearlong wildfire season won’t make any of our choices easier.
Still, Sonoma County remains a beautiful, bountiful, healthy, hopeful, welcoming, cherished, prideful, Eden-like place. We have 50 county parks, 76 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline and 123,000 acres of open space and preserved lands. Sonoma County’s farmers annually produce just over $1 billion in grapes, fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, livestock, timber and other crops. Our cities, small towns and villages are low in crime, well-groomed and well-governed. Some cumulative impacts may be more acceptable than others, it seems.
Twenty years ago, the county’s population was 396,592 and it is now at 500,000. Over the same 20 years the county’s vineyard acreage has gone from 31,000 to 59,000 acres. When the Russian River Wine Road was founded in 1976 it had nine winery members. Today there are 200. In total, there are 464 winery tasting rooms in the county and 307 of them have event permits. Winegrapes represent almost 70% of all agricultural production, yet we still have enough acreage to support other diverse and sustainable ag pursuits and farms.
Even as we keep trying to define what we mean by rural character, we have a long history of defending it. The county adopted a General Plan in 1978 focused on “city-centered” growth to limit sprawl and protect farms. Until 1989, only crops and animals were allowed in ag-zoned areas. The General Plan was amended that year to allow “ag promotions” such as Farm Trails, pumpkin patches and Christmas tree farm visitors and hayrides.
The newly proposed Winery Event Ordinance seeks to better define what is, and is not, an “ag promotion.” The ordinance seeks to provide consistency and clarity to the use permit process, reduce impacts to surrounding areas, protect ag lands, and preserve rural character. It sets maximum hours of operations, parking, food service, event coordination, traffic management and setbacks for noise mitigation. Over the long seven years of meetings and rural neighborhood committee sessions, the limits to undesired cumulative impacts has not been settled.
In 2000, the Sierra Club and others sought county voter approval for a Rural Heritage Initiative that would have tightly limited rezoning of ag lands and restrict non-farm activities. The measure failed when Farm Bureau members and other farmers complained they weren’t included in the original drafting of the measure.
Here we are again at the same crossroad from 1978 when county planners wrote a General Plan to avoid becoming another San Jose and Silicon Valley. Since that time, voters have approved and renewed Urban Growth Boundaries around all nine incorporated cities.
Working together, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of protecting our farm lands, open space, wildlands, community identities and healthy environment. But we have not avoided all the cumulative impacts we would have liked to. Adding 100,000 new residents, millions of annual tourists and hundreds of new wineries has boosted our economy, but even that comes with costs. These include busier country roads, water supply worries, expensive housing and irksome land-use rules. Is it possible to de-cumulate something?