Too much of a good thing
By Linda Hale, Valley of the Moon Alliance
Back in 1970 Sonoma Valley was still a community of farmers and vintners that pretty much either grazed cattle, farmed, or grew grapes on a small scale. Artists had taken over some of the old Nicolas turkey sheds and turned them into the Art Farm on Broadway in downtown Sonoma. Some of those artists and farmers also made wine and brandy and celebrated once a year at the Bootleggers Ball held in an old grange building. Grapes were dry farmed and you could drive over to the Valley of the Moon Winery on Madrone Road and have your gallon jug refilled. Tastings were free.
Things have changed and we are in the midst of sorting out the impacts of permitted resorts, new commercial buildings, and legacy vested permits. When the recession hit in the late 1980s, minor improvements were made to keep many permits viable and today those permits are worth millions. According to Jennifer Barrett of the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), the definition of agriculture and what could happen on ag land was also changed. In 1989 the General Plan was changed to allow agricultural production to include processing grapes from off site. The County also permitted “promotional” activities. In 1996 a new trend in the wine industry for limited food services was also permitted. In 2008 there was a General Plan update to include mitigation to coordinate industry-wide promotional activities and events which was not fully implemented nor enforced, according to Barrett.
With these marketing extras in place, a rush for permits from 2000 to 2015 led to a 300 percent increase in facilities, growing from 127 in 2000 to nearly 450 wineries countywide by 2015. Sonoma Valley saw a record 64 of the 82 current wineries permitted in that time span. The result has been a race to the top with international companies leading the pack, each vying to offer over-the-top experiences with dinners, concerts, and film festivals. The environmental reviews and traffic studies paid for by the applicants for these permits are supposed to address all of the projected future impacts of each of these projects. Unfortunately each project states that their well is deep enough, their 50-foot setback from creeks will not disturb the wildlife, and traffic can be mitigated by adding another stoplight.
All of this development has cumulative impacts.
Things have indeed changed. The two elephants now in the room are climate change and over-extended water resources. City governments and our Board of Supervisors have pledged to reduce emissions under the Climate Action Plan 2030 and to protect groundwater and its sources as required by the state-mandated Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. With additional traffic and limited road access in the Valley, how will local cities and the County meet the four percent reduction of current emissions when growth projections allow for a five percent increase in emissions? Sonoma County is home to six of the Bay Area highway corridors where traffic is gridlocked and engines idle. And with dry feeder creeks and reduced flows, how will groundwater maintain levels adequate for current housing, ranches, and wells? The planned Sonoma Country Inn Resort and Spa under Hood Mountain will operate off of two deep wells whose zones of influence extend far across Highway 12 to the west.
More development is on the way.
Elnoka, a new senior living community west of Oakmont, is back on the table. At a recent public meeting, neighbors and Oakmont residents were told to get ready to receive a “notice of preparation” for a scoping session to identify impacts which the developers said would be “substantial.” The new community will have 778 units on 60 acres along with a pool, rec centers, dining, and employee housing. An additional stoplight will be added for their gated entrance off Highway 12. Most of the units will be high-density, two- and three-story apartments with underground parking and elevators. Neighbors wanted to know about the visual impacts, the impacts to highway traffic and the surrounding neighborhoods, and the length of the project’s five phases of construction which also concerned the Oakmont Village Association in 2005.
Almost all of the concerns were referred to a future Environmental Impact Report which the developers will pay for. One woman in the audience pointed out that their 2005 traffic study for the project was found to be “flawed.” Another questioned the loss of trees and creek access by wildlife. The County only requires a 50-foot creek setback, so that has been engineered in. Hundreds of trees will still have to be removed, destroying another piece of the watershed. When a question about water usage was asked, the developers said that all the water they need was allocated back in 2005 for the project. Someone should tell them that state water agencies in California have already allocated five times more water than is available in our rivers even in normal years.
And we should tell the City of Santa Rosa and the County that it is time for a reality check.