Inward Bound

Janet Orsi

Master of his domain: From his lofty vantage point, developer Tom Robertwon surveys the Fourth Street scene.

Can urban growth boundaries and the ‘New Urbanism’ stop the paving over of Sonoma County? Should they?

By Zack Stentz

TEN YEARS AGO, the paving over of Sonoma County looked like a fait accompli. Petaluma’s transition from sleepy agricultural town to bedroom community for Marin County and San Francisco neared completion. Almost overnight, Windsor and Rohnert Park had sprung up like tract-home bookends to the north and south of Santa Rosa, which itself was growing rapidly, gobbling up ranch lands and orchards to the east and west. And plans to widen Highway 101 moved full-speed ahead, bringing with them the possibility of a nearly unbroken chain of suburbia from Petaluma to Cloverdale.

A decade later, the balance of power between the forces of sprawl and preservation is shifting, with the pace of development and annexation slowing, the Highway 101 widening project delayed indefinitely, and the long-deferred dream of building a commuter rail link to Marin finally moving forward.

But the hottest flashpoint by far for Sonoma County’s development struggles is the issue of urban growth boundaries, or UGBs, legally binding city ordinances preventing municipalities from expanding outward for a set length of time–20 years in most cases. For supporters, UGBs have the advantage of curbing sprawl and helping a community retain its character. Opponents see them as a way to unfairly hinder economic development.

“Sebastopol and Healdsburg will have citizen initiatives for UGBs on the November ballot, and Santa Rosa will have a City Council referendum,” says Krista Shaw, the Bay Area Greenbelt Alliance point woman for Sonoma County and a strong backer of UGBs. “Rohnert Park is talking about it, and Cotati intended to adopt one, but their general plan update isn’t ready yet.

“The Windsor City Council says they’ll have urban growth boundaries,” she adds, “but we do not endorse the Windsor model for UGBs. They’re putting something on the ballot that looks like a growth boundary to appease the voters, but can be changed any time at the whim of the City Council.”

Last fall the pro-growth majority on the Petaluma City Council voted not to appoint a citizens’ review committee to look into UGBs. Environmentalists are holding off for now on trying to pass UGBs in Petaluma, preferring to wait until after the November elections, when they hope a less environmentally hostile City Council majority will be elected.

In 1996, UGBs form a linchpin in the Sonoma County environmental movement’s efforts to rein in unchecked development and preserve open space. “UGBs are definitely part of the solution [to development problems],” says Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, one of the county’s toughest environmental groups. “We’ve done a lot of the legwork to get them passed [literally, in deploying a crack team of canvassers to knock on doors in support of UGBs], and we expect to work very closely with the Greenbelt Alliance on the issue.

“The problem with UGBs,” Green adds, “is that if you don’t have them everywhere in the county, then you’re not solving the problem. It’s like squeezing a water balloon. If you limit growth in Santa Rosa but not in Windsor, then that’s where all the growth will go.”

Which is why the push for UGBs is being waged in nearly every city in Sonoma County at once, a phenomenon Shaw says is without precedent in the nation. “This is the first time in the United States a movement like this has been pushed countywide,” she says. “Portland and other cities in Oregon adopted UGBs in 1970, but in that case it was a mandate from the state Legislature, so each of the cities had to come up with one.

“We’ve taken that idea, but are doing it from the grassroots up.”

Aside from the formidable one-two punch of the Greenbelt Alliance and Conservation Action, UGB proponents owe much of their momentum to the support of some within the local business and development community, who have broken ranks with most of their comrades in local business circles to back these limits. They see them as essential to revitalizing the downtowns of Sonoma County’s cities.

One such person is Alan Strahan, the man behind the 550-unit Courtside Village development set to take shape this autumn along Sebastopol Road in west Santa Rosa. “I support UGBs,” he says, “because I think we need to focus our resources on cleaning up the core areas within cities that are rotting instead of always expanding our borders.

“You can’t have a healthy county when you keep building subdivisions on agricultural land but leave other areas like Roseland behind to fester.”

Another fifth columnist among the Sonoma County business community is investor/developer Tom Robertson, whose downtown Santa Rosa investments include the Rosenberg Building–which houses the Barnes & Noble Bookstore and Starbucks Coffee–the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, and Team Players Billiards. Clad in a bow tie and tweeds, Robertson comes across more like a hip Harvard professor than a hard-charging developer, an impression helped by his casual invocation of literary references and famous philosophical brainteasers when explaining why he thinks UGBs are a must.

“We have to draw the line with annexation. The temptation is to keep approving these small parcels of lands, but it’s like Zeno’s paradox,” he says, citing the Greek philosopher Zeno, who explained that if you kept breaking the distance an arrow had to travel into half, you’d eventually have an infinite number of halves, resulting in the arrow never reaching its target. “You just keep on approving them, and the annexation never stops.

“Our architectural and cultural heritage is right here,” adds Robertson, pointing to the buildings that line Fourth Street. “And if you abandon it, you’re turning your back on a century of human endeavor. Why shouldn’t we celebrate this heritage?”

Of course, critics would point out that Robertson has a financial as well as sociological stake in seeing development channeled downtown, but his passion for Santa Rosa’s urban core seems to go beyond the bottom line, as evidenced by his investment in the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre building near the corner of Fifth and Humboldt streets. SCRT’s Jim dePriest has been successful at promoting his company, but no one invests in live theater expecting to make a bundle. Still, Robertson regards cultural amenities as essential components to a healthy urban core.

“A theater can work in a downtown,” he says. “People can walk or drive here, see a play, and then stroll over to Fourth Street to shop or go to a restaurant. That closeness of amenities is what makes a downtown so pleasant and interesting.”

STRAHAN AND ROBERTSON–and Green and Shaw, for that matter–have aligned themselves with a school of urban planning variously called “neo-traditional” or “new urbanism.” As advocated by planners and architects like Berkeley’s Peter Calthorpe, who is helping Sonoma and Marin counties come up with a comprehensive land-use and transportation plan, new urbanism involves focusing developments on pedestrian-oriented downtowns instead of auto-centered malls and big-box stores, mixing residential and commercial properties, and encouraging developers to build alternatives to the single-family house with front and back yards and a garage facing the street.

If this sounds like a throwback to an almost 19th-century model of a compact, public space­oriented town, that’s because it is. Hence, “neo-traditional.”

Courtside Village in Santa Rosa falls squarely into the neo-traditional category, with its 550 units tucked into 70 acres and centered on a small commercial hub of shops and a community swimming pool. Other amenities include narrow streets, wide, tree-lined sidewalks, and garages in back of the houses.

“The houses have porches in front instead of garages,” Strahan says proudly, “which makes it a much more social environment, where you have much more of a sense of community than you get from a street lined with garage doors.”

So is Strahan trying to encourage community and togetherness among his homebuyers simply out of a sense of altruism? “Hell, no!” he declares. “I think these units will ultimately sell better and command better prices than typical suburban houses because many people want that sense of community they feel they’ve lost over the years.”

Strahan admits, though, that he’s encountered difficulties in selling investors on the neo-traditional concept. “It’s much more difficult than getting financing for a conventional subdivision, because that’s what banks have financed in the past,” he explains. “It’s like driving by looking through a rear-view mirror.”

But while environmentalists and downtown advocates see UGBs as firewalls to check sprawl and encourage development along more community-friendly lines and within existing municipal borders (otherwise known as “infill”), several business and taxpayers’ groups see them as unwarranted and unnecessary intrusions on property rights and the real estate market.

“They’re trying to play God over the borders,” says Jean Marie Foster, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association. “This is a property rights issue, and it takes tremendous arrogance to make decisions that determine property values and land use for the next 20 years.”

Taking a somewhat more moderate tone is Charlie Carson, executive director of the Homebuilders’ Association of Northern California’s northern division, which covers Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties. While Carson supports the general idea of placing limits on urban expansion, he is wary of the 20-year moratorium written into most UGBs. “The concept is important from a planning perspective,” he says. “No one would dispute that. But our position is that limits need to be flexible so they can accommodate changes 10 or 15 years down the road, and we’re concerned that the current UGBs being proposed don’t have that flexibility built into them.”

Still another perspective is offered by civil engineer and land planner Richard Carlile of the Sonoma County Alliance, a Santa Rosa­based business coalition. “I think most people are against sprawl per se, and philosophically support the concept of fixed urban boundaries,” he says. “But where I differ from the Greenbelt Alliance is that I don’t think it should be arbitrarily set where it is now.

“A border that’s going to be in place for 20 years needs to be comprehensively planned first.”

Carlile is also an enthusiastic supporter of neo-traditional projects like Courtside Village, which he sees as a critical component in reducing congestion along Highway 101.

“Developments like Courtside Village that are pedestrian-oriented and mix together residential and commercial space help take traffic off the freeway,” he explains. “And I’d like to see more creative land-use projects like it.”

Mason, on the other hand, isn’t sure what all this fuss over development was about in the first place. “We don’t have a growth problem in Sonoma County,” she maintains. “Our current Planning Commission is doing a good job, and the environmentalists are creating a problem where none exists.”

Shaw vehemently disputes this assertion, but she does admit that things could be worse in Sonoma County. As in some environmentalist-general’s command bunker, a master map of the Bay Area hangs on the wall of her Mendocino Avenue office in downtown Santa Rosa, with the areas most threatened by development highlighted in orange and red. And as one would expect, Sonoma County is marked by a huge crimson swath that cuts up and down along Highway 101 from the north end of Petaluma to the southern outskirts of Cloverdale.

“Freeway-based development is the rule in the Bay Area, along the Highway 101 corridor here and all over the place in neighboring Contra Costa County,” says Shaw, putting the local situation into perspective.

ONE FACTOR working in Sonoma County’s favor has been the winery explosion of the last two decades. Unlike other regions of the Bay Area, where agriculture is a marginal business at best, the ongoing boom in wine means that, for now at least, many tracts of Sonoma County agricultural lands are more valuable intact as vineyards than carved up into residential subdivisions. “Even small tracts of land are viable as vineyards,” says Shaw.

But Shaw asserts that a continued winery boom is not a given, and frets over the consequences of a collapse in the county’s wine industry. “If and when this boom comes to the end, you’re going to have a lot of landowners in deep financial trouble,” she says.

“And there will be tremendous pressure for them to sell off their land to developers for the quick money.”

Carson, too, expresses concern for Sonoma County’s agriculture sector, but cautions against solutions as far-reaching as UGBs. “The concept is good and worthwhile, but how far do you want to go to force it?” he asks.

As for encouraging densely populated, pedestrian-oriented development, Carson says: “That’s always what groups like the Greenbelt Alliance advocate, but the neighbors come unglued whenever you try to do infill and develop unused areas within city limits, so you have the situation of the city council having to ram these projects through over neighbors’ objections.

“And will existing city infrastructures of roads, sewers, and schools accommodate infill? In many cases, no.”

Then there’s the long-simmering issue of Highway 101, and how to relieve congestion along the clotted corridor. Foster and her group support the freeway’s immediate widening. Period. “They [environmental groups] want to use 101 to stop growth,” she says, “which is unacceptable.”

Conservation Action, though, seems willing to negotiate on the issue. “I think the mainstream environmental movement understands that 101 is being used by people to hop across Santa Rosa, and would be amenable to widening it between Cotati and North Santa Rosa,” says Green. “If the business community agreed to UGBs and commuter rail, then the environmental community could deal with widening Highway 101.”

But Foster scoffs at the notion of commuter-rail service as a viable entity in Sonoma County. “Rail would be wonderful if we could make it cost-effective,” he says. “But we don’t have the tax base to support it. And everyone always wants you to ride the train, but no one wants to ride it themselves.”

IN THE END, Foster and her group’s main beef with the neo-traditionalist proponents and their plans for infill and rail links seems to center around ideology. Foster trusts that the “invisible hand” of the free market touted by 18th-century economist Adam Smith will bring into being the kind of development wanted by Sonoma County’s residents. But Shaw, Green, Robertson, and Strahan emphasize the social good of having viable, thriving downtowns and abundant open space, and are willing to bend the rules of the marketplace if need be to guide development toward what they see as desirable ends.

“You need rules to focus the money,” says Robertson. “Look at San Francisco. It’s an interesting place largely because it had limits to outward growth, because the people in the city decided from early on to restrict growth south over the San Bruno mountains.”

But the thought of using San Francisco as a growth model for Sonoma County sends shudders down Foster’s spine. “This county isn’t meant to have high-density cities,” she says. “The kind of development they’re talking about would turn Santa Rosa into Detroit.”

That attitude seems to be the exception. At the risk of sounding downright Clintonian, both the environmental and business communities appear to be in the process of searching for a sensible center on some of the county’s main development issues. The Sonoma County business and government establishments, which once rubber-stamped cookie-cutter subdivisions without blinking an eye, are beginning to have second thoughts about growth without limits.

“Well, the realtors might like no curbs on growth whatsoever, but I think most of us recognize that disorganized sprawl is not the way for Sonoma County to grow,” says Carlile.

For their part, many environmentalists have managed to transcend the tactics of simple obstructionism and offer a positive vision for Sonoma County’s future, one that includes some forms of benign growth. “It is important that we work to create alternatives to the kind of growth we oppose, and not just say no all the time,” says Green. “So while we do have to oppose things like indiscriminate freeway widening, box stores, and paving over agricultural land, we also have to be advocates for infill development and the thriving, pedestrian-oriented downtowns that we think are beneficial to the county.

“Sometimes we say no,” he adds, “but there’s a lot of saying yes, too.”

THAT’S A GOOD THING, given the independent projections for Sonoma County’s population growth over the next two decades. In a recently published report, the Association of Bay Area Governments predicted that Sonoma County’s population will swell from its 1995 level of 432,000 to 565,900 residents by 2015. ABAG sees Petaluma adding another 12,900 residents to reach a 2015 level of 63,400 and the greater Santa Rosa service area growing from 148,600 to 184,000 people over the same period.

All of those people are going to have to live somewhere, whether in split-level ranchettes on a cul-de-sac near Cloverdale or in cozy apartments atop coffee shops and bakeries in downtown Santa Rosa.

So while no one’s ready to hold hands along Santa Rosa Avenue and sing “We Shall Overcome,” many of the players involved think that the subdivisioning of Sonoma County is not an inevitability. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Shaw. “A lot of the issues we’ve been raising for years are finally being discussed and even being implemented in one form or another. People in Sonoma County are realizing that the unlimited-growth-or none-at-all dichotomy being put forward is a false one.”

Green, too, sees Sonoma County as having reached a turning point. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, Sonoma County will be making fundamental decisions about what our county will be like for the foreseeable future,” he says. “And if we don’t think carefully about these decisions, then we’ll build out all of the flatlands, agriculture will die on the vine, and we’ll lose that really special quality that makes Sonoma County so appealing to people in the first place.”

In contrast to Mason’s rust-belt-on-the­Russian River prediction, Green invokes another specter certain to send a chill down the spine of a Northern Californian. “Remember,” he warns, “the Santa Clara Valley used to be a beautiful agricultural region bordering a large urban area. And once upon a time, so was the San Fernando Valley.”

So whose predictions and warnings will end up coming to pass in Sonoma County? About 432,000 people would certainly like to know, for it’s the residents of Sonoma County who will both determine and live with the choices to be made about which direction the county should head. Whether they will choose a tried-and-true path that’s led to bland urbanization in other communities or a seductive but untried effort to engineer a different, more eco-friendly future is anyone’s guess.

From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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