New community separators for Kenwood, Glen Ellen
Sonoma County voters will be asked in November to both extend and expand the designated “community separator” lands that prevent increased development densities around cities and a few populated unincorporated areas of the county. This time around, the supervisors agreed to extend the idea to almost all the property between Kenwood and Glen Ellen as well as to the pristine parts of the Sonoma Developmental Center, slated for closure in a couple of years.
A series of public meetings in each of the county’s five districts over the past year showed public support for the idea has not waned since the separator program was instituted in 1996 and 1998 elections. Essentially, a community separator property requires a county-wide vote to increase development density – whatever development was allowed before the designation was added is still permitted.
The community separator restrictions don’t apply to any agricultural activities, including adding wine processing and tasting rooms. What isn’t possible, is subdividing and increasing development density on any lands, ag or otherwise, at least not without a county-wide vote.
“If you have 20 acres in a five-acre minimum zone, you can still build four houses,” Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) Deputy Director Jennifer Barrett explained. “There are no special restrictions placed on ag lands. Whatever they could do before the community separator designation, they can still do.” Supervisor David Rabbitt repeatedly expressed concerns of some farmers about adding “restrictions” to their properties.
“These are the most important greenbelt policy measures in Sonoma County,” said Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance Regional Director for the North Bay. “They will be protecting our ag lands and open space for the next generation.” She isn’t too concerned that the supervisors throttled a plan to extend the measure for 30 years back to 20. “We can live with 20 years and I think we can get (the measure) renewed again. The 30-year option was well supported, but none of us know what’s going to happen in 20 years.”
Community Separators work with Urban Growth Limits to prevent sprawl, forcing cities to built up and not out. Urban Growth Boundaries – called UGBs – set a border around a city that becomes a limit beyond which they cannot expand. Conversely, Community Separators are designated by the county for the unincorporated areas surrounding cities, keeping an undeveloped area between cities, rather than allowing them to eventually grow together as has been the case in most of the South Bay Area, including Santa Clara and Silicon Valley.
Supervisors Rabbitt, Carrillo and Zane were concerned about expanding the community separator lands threefold, and ultimately removed some proposed designations of wetlands south of Petaluma along with a very large tract of properties in Alexander Valley. Even so, the renewed separators would add nearly 20,000 acres to the existing 17,500 acres now designated separators. The majority of those added lands are north of Healdsburg.
Shore was very positive about Sonoma Valley’s position in the expanded separators.
“Susan (Gorin) did a good job and we’re going to be protecting wild lands around the Developmental Center,” she said. “Sonoma Valley probably got the best protection.”
Noting that Sonoma Developmental Center lands could be developed and that there is a need to protect an identified wildlife corridor, Gorin said, “We want to draw a line in the sand about future uses if the state sells the land.”
An additional several hundred acres north of Highway 121 and south of Sonoma were not included, although they fit the criteria to be added this time around. They entire area south of Sonoma will be the subject of separate inquiries into future development potentials.
The November ballot measure includes both extending the existing Community Separator ordinances and amending the county’s General Plan, and permits the Board of Supervisors to add lands to separators anytime. They cannot, however remove properties without a general election.
An exception that would allow building affordable housing in separators was taken out after all board members concluded that affordable housing shouldn’t be built in rural land.
All the properties being added can be seen online at the Permit and Resource Management Department website, www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/community_separators/index.htm.
The supervisors will finalize the ballot measure at their Aug. 2 regular meeting.