A strong push for development in the county has come packing its own counterforce--a mushrooming urban population growing increasingly aware of its receding open spaces and of the need for balance in land use.
Land uses are subject to a host of limitations spelled out in the land use elements of county and city general plans, and specifically by zoning based on those plans, applied through planning departments and commissions. Local governments and landowners are also subject to regional, state, and national agency directives. This report combines information released by monitoring and advisory groups: the Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance, the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the state Department of Conservation.
Recently-instated greenbelt protections and other land-use constraints have reduced the amount of land open to development.
Sonoma County has made a "dramatic turnaround" since 1989, when it topped all other Bay Area counties for the highest proportion of land open to development, according to reports released by the Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance. In intervening years, several local growth-control and land
conservation measures have worked to slow the pace of urbanization and set aside more open space.
Prior to these measures, development appeared likely on more than one quarter of Sonoma County's total land area within the next 10 to 30 years, according to Alliance estimates. The watchgroup credits a conscientious general plan, which protects agricultural zoning, in combination with a trend towards enforcing urban boundaries, as well as the creation of a county public land trust, for reducing by half the amount of land most likely to be developed. Urbanization is now considered imminent--likely within ten years' time--on 4.2% of the county's land area (42,200 acres).
The largest of the eight Bay Area counties surveyed by the alliance, Sonoma County still tops the others for having the highest number of acres (126,100) open to urbanization. It also ranks first for having the smallest proportion of land--7.6%--set aside as greenbelt.
Residential and commercial growth into greenbelt surrounding Windsor and Cloverdale caused both cities to be placed on the Alliance's most recent Hot Spots list, along with continuing ranchette subdivision activity outside Petaluma and Sebastopol.
Urban acreage now accounts for 6% of the county's total land area.
Sonoma County has been urbanizing its land at the rate of about 1,100 acres annually, with 83% of newly-urbanized land, or more than 900 acres per year, coming out of agriculture. According to the state Department of Conservation, more than 4,500 acres of land undergo some form of conversion
each year in Sonoma County. Urban built-up land has increased by 7.4% in the last ten years.
More than 36,000 acres have undergone land-use changes (shown in two-year increments) since 1984.
Surveys conducted by the Association of Bay Area Governments show that almost three-quarters (72.4%) of the urbanized land in Sonoma County is residential, while nearly one-sixth (11.9%) is devoted to commercial and service uses. Open land in urban areas, including parks and undeveloped lots, accounted for 6.4% in the most recent of ABAG's periodic reports on existing land uses.
Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance, California Department of Conservation, Association of Bay Area Governments.
Researcher Carolyn Dixon, writing in An Inventory of Protected Lands in Sonoma County (1990), lauded progress in land preservation but said losses of high-quality wildlife habitat and other valuable natural resources still occur far too quickly for state and local conservation organizations to determine their value and move to acquire them prior to development.
Preservationists have overlooked unique places and habitat while focusing on those areas where development appears most imminent, Dixon
said. She suggested that an inventory of lands critical to the county's environmental well-being be used as a guide for future preservation plans, and that these lands might include coastal, river, marsh and wetland preserves, springs, agricultural soils, and scenic and historic assets.
More than 20,000 acres, or about 2% of the county's total land area, have been specifically set aside for their value as habitat or other special resources, and protected from human intrusion. This biotically sensitive acreage is contained in more than 50 separate parcels, about 14 of them in parcels of 200 acres or more, the minimal amount of area believed necessary to support a species.
Sonoma County Planning Director Ken Milam, in a "Supplemental Report and Draft Growth Ordinance" submitted to supervisors in 1990, noted that development in unincorporated areas of the county had been proceeding at a rate faster than anticipated in the general plan and, in the vicinity of Sebastopol and Sonoma, had already overtaken 2005 projections during the mid-'80s. In recent years, builders had been adding approximately 1,000 to 1,500 new units annually to housing stock in unincorporated areas, generating a growth crisis which amounted to "an immediate threat to the preservation of the public health, safety, or welfare," Milam said (2).
An ad hoc committee reviewing county growth projections, in its "Report and Executive Summary on the General Plan Database and Growth Rates" (1990), concluded in its findings that the means traditionally used by planners to control the pace of development--such as sewage treatment, road capacity, and other infrastructure--had, in fact, "not been effective" as controls (4). Growth "must occur within a framework of service availability and considerations of quality of life," the committee said in its summary (2).
The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), in Projections94, claimed county planners underestimated both the demand and potential for growth by 3,700-6,000 units between 1990 and 2010. The association expects most communities will build out to their official boundaries within this time, assuming that constraints in water supply, roads, schools, or sewage and storm drainage management are overcome.
Urban and rural areas throughout the county have "severe and/or critical infrastructure problems" that currently constrain development or are likely to restrict it in the near future, ABAG holds (314).
ABAG sets "fair share" growth quotas among participating counties in the Bay Area.
The Sonoma County Grand Jury, in its 1990 final report, concluded its investigation of county planning practices by noting that "insufficient resources" in the planning department had prevented planners from doing their jobs effectively. Its investigation was prompted by complaints of seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent land-use decisions, unprocessed zoning violations, and an "inability to reach anyone in the Planning Department via telephone."
"From a cursory review," jurors suggested, "a case might be made that those with the sophistication and funds to engage professional assistance often fare the best" in county planning transactions.
Katie Scarborough and The Sonoma County Farmlands Group, in Farmland Worth Saving (1989?), estimated that agriculture has ceded more than 5,000 acres annually to other uses over the last 40 years, shrinking by more than 130,000 acres between 1959 and 1987, while the size of the average farm has dropped by more than 25%. Farming has become less a way of life and more of a business enterprise in Sonoma County, and is especially vulnerable to changing economic conditions in the surrounding landscape, the group said. It praised the creation of a new agricultural element in the county general plan, which offers more measures to ensure economic stability for farming.
return to chapter selection page go to chapter 3