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News: 07/01/2018

Whole community the focus of new Sustainable Sonoma

Pristine valley vistas, fine wine, delicious food, enviable weather and exciting arts and culture. Sonoma Valley is marketed as a pastoral slice of paradise, but in spite of – or some may argue because of – that image, Sonoma Valley also has problems.

The topics of concern are not new – vacation rentals, water, traffic, affordable housing – but now a new coalition representing interest groups from across Sonoma Valley is trying to do something that has never before been attempted here: to bring all those different groups to one table, find common ground, and put everyone’s resources into tackling those problems.

Sustainable Sonoma, as the new initiative is being called, grew out of the realization that a sustainable community is one that is economically, environmentally, and socially healthy and resilient. Sonoma Valley is home to hundreds of nonprofits and other organizations working hard to make the Valley of the Moon better, but the approach has been fragmented rather than integrated.

That’s what needs to change.

“We all can see the default trajectory has flaws,” said Caitlin Cornwall, Sustainable Sonoma project manager and a biologist with the Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC). The SEC fills just one seat on the 30-plus-seat Sustainable Sonoma Council. While the SEC is incubating the initiative for the time being, it is hoped that in the future, Sustainable Sonoma will live on its own, not connected to any one group.

“We can’t predict the future and we can’t guarantee a revolution, but as Sonoma Valley, we’ve never tried having an organized constituency that brings environment, business, social justice together,” she said. “We have never put all our muscles behind just a few goals to create positive change.”

Sustainable Sonoma is in its infancy and Cornwall admits it will be a long process. The Council, representing interests that include lower income and senior social services, health care, housing – from no growth to pro growth, visitor-serving and local-serving businesses, viticulture, organized labor, environmental and faith organizations, began meeting in November 2017. Since then Sustainable Sonoma has been gathering input from various stakeholder groups and, on June 19, it wrapped up its first round of public listening sessions to gather input from the focus-area communities of Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Boyes Hot Springs.

“What we are hearing is not unexpected,” said Cornwall. “Generally, these issues are what people usually talk about. What’s more interesting are the same points are coming up no matter who we talk to.” Cornwall said those points boil down to the “preservation of rural character” and “equitable access” – to open space, good education, health care, housing, etc.

“There is concern across the board of inclusion,” said Cornwall, “That all different communities that live and work in Sonoma Valley and all the different kinds of people who live here need to be in this conversation and reap the benefits equally.”

Sustainable Sonoma’s next task is to equip the Council to find common ground to addresses these problems, though some members may not see eye-to-eye on the solutions.

It’s a delicate undertaking, admitted Cornwall. “We’re taking the time to build the capacity of the councilmembers to have difficult conversations with each other and not be sidetracked by disagreements.” A lot of planning has gone into getting the beginning right.

Sustainable Sonoma’s work is being funded by an anonymous private donor, grants from The Wallace Gerbode Foundation and Impact100 Sonoma, a generous donations of time from a cadre of local advisors, steering committee members, and council members.

Another thing that’s different about Sustainable Sonoma is that it’s not starting off with a list of set priority actions – those are being developed with feedback, over time. “We are not trying to solve all the problems. We are trying to create a platform for unprecedented collaboration in order to solve the community’s biggest problems.”

Once those problems are prioritized, Sustainable Sonoma hopes to form work groups that can turn talk into action. Those working groups might be able to put language into the city and county general plan or negotiate the living wage conundrum directly, said Cornwall. Some councilmembers are comfortable working in the policy realm, some will work on developing public-private partnerships.

Despite the high bar it’s set, Sustainable Sonoma is not unique in this undertaking. Other communities around the world – like Sustainable San Mateo, Resilient Vermont, Ohio’s Community Matters, and New Zealand’s Community Matters – have seen a need for and are in the midst of similar initiatives of sustainable collaboration.

Sustainable Sonoma is collecting public feedback at its website through August. You can learn more about the initiative there or contact Cornwall directly at or Sustainable Sonoma Coordinator Kim Jones at

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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