Durable Growth, Government

Putting up a strawman inside the community separators

081221012 Office ViewI’ve previously written about the Sonoma County community separators, delineated areas between towns in which only limited land use development is allowed, permitting the towns to retain distinct identities.  Supporters of the separators, of whom there are many, point to the undifferentiated development of the South Bay and the Los Angeles Basin as the fate they’re trying to avoid in Sonoma County.

The photo is of the current separator between Petaluma and Penngrove.  It was taken from the window of an office I once occupied and demonstrates the soul-calming value of maintaining pastoral viewsheds.

The effort to renew the Sonoma County community separators achieved a milestone a few days ago.  After extended public comment, the Sonoma County Supervisors voted to place the renewal on the November 2016 ballot.  Also, the Supervisors agreed to continue consideration of expansion of the separators administratively, by amendment to the Sonoma County General Plan.

I wasn’t present for the hearing or the Supervisors’ decision, being away visiting family in Watsonville and also nearing my annual quota of public meetings, so am relying on press coverage and the personal accounts of others for my understanding of the meeting.  But I seem not to have missed any fireworks.  Given the significance of the subject and the contentiousness that characterizes many land use actions, it seems to have been a relatively affable meeting.

In my view, the biggest question to be settled by the Supervisors was whether to go to the voters only for renewal of the current separators, a measure that polling shows is likely to be approved, or to risk asking for enlarged separators with possibility of coming up short at the ballot box.

Faced with that choice, the decision by the Supervisors to put the current separators on the ballot and to consider expansion through administrative action for which they’d act as the point seems to have been positively Solomonic.

With the Supervisors’ action, the community separators decision seems have become a land use action that achieved the rare goal of nearly everyone walking away content.

Thus, it was with surprise and consternation that I read the opening paragraph of the coverage in the local newspaper, the Press Democrat:

“Amid rising rents throughout the North Bay and mounting pressure to build new housing, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday said they will seek a ballot initiative next year extending open space protections on 17,000 acres in between urban areas to fend off potential large-scale development.”

There are an astounding number of false implications within that sentence.  Let me try to enumerate just a few of the strawmen arguments.

1 – There is an implication that a battle is brewing between pending development and the separators.   However, the North Bay Association of Realtors specifically disavows that possibility elsewhere in the article.  The separators are more about shaping long-term development patterns rather that stymieing pending projects.

2 – There is an implication that more housing can only occur by pushing into the community separators.  But every Sonoma County city has standards that encourage infill and walkable development.  Some of those standards aren’t implemented as aggressively as I would wish, but no one is disavowing the goal of more urbanism.  On the summary of constraints on Sonoma County growth, water is probably at the top.  Land is well down the list.

3 – There is an implication that development at or beyond the urban fringes would somehow relieve the financial pressure of life in Sonoma County.  But we know that the cost of living, considering the costs of both housing and transportation, is often higher at the urban fringe.  What we must do is create moderately priced housing in settings where families can function with fewer cars.  And we don’t need the land in the community separators to meet that goal.

If the Press Democrat wishes, they may certainly oppose the community separators.  It would a position that would seem to be contrary to the general public, but newspapers have the duty to sometimes be contrary.

But the position, if the Press Democrat chooses to adopt it, belongs on the editorial page, not set forth as dubious implications folded into a news article.

The public deserves not to be manipulated by strawmen.

Earlier this year, I introduced to this blog the concept of missing middle housing, supplemental housing units that add walkability-sustaining density without changing the fabric of the neighborhood.  Not only was it a popular post, but it made me more attuned to spotting the missing middle housing hiding in plain sight in my neighborhood and town.  I’ve been spotting many instances of missing middle housing that I’d been overlooking.  I’ll share photos in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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