“Vital Lands Initiative” adopted
FEBRUARY 15, 2021
Revamped policies will reshape county open space decisions for decades
By Jay Gamel
Almost five years and a million dollars in the making, Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District has adopted a sweeping set of policies and guidelines — the Vital Lands Initiative — that will inform decisions through 2031 on how millions of dollars of open space taxes will be spent to acquire and preserve the agricultural and wildlands that define the county’s rural character. Created in 1990, the Ag + Open Space District, as it is known, is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that has protected more than 120,000 acres through the purchase of development rights or outright purchase. Open space taxes have also been used to acquire parks and recreation areas for both the county and its incorporated cities. Open space funds are often leveraged through matching grants and alliances with nonprofits like the Sonoma Land Trust and individual donors. The Open Space District is so popular that it was reaffirmed by an overwhelming 76 percent margin when put to a renewal vote in 2006.
“Vital Lands is an enormous step forward for the district,” Interim Director Caryl Hart said. “It will allow us to make decisions based on real time data and to spend our money where it can best serve all members of our community.”
The earliest decisions about what to conserve or buy were aimed at protecting properties with strong visual impacts on major traffic corridors. The very first acquisition was grazing land adjacent to Highway 101 between Petaluma and Cotati, a stretch commuted daily by tens of thousands of cars.
Hundreds of citizens joined workshops where they looked at maps and identified properties they thought should be saved from development, frequently with an eye to keeping a particular view pristine, or at least from being further compromised. Acquisitions were made in remote areas of the county as they became available, but many lands conserved in the first decade tended to be along Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley or other major high- Vital Lands – continued from page 1
ways frequented by commuters and tourists alike.
Basic concepts of land conservation have matured over the three decades since the district was formed, calling for deeper understanding of ecology, climate, and long-term stewardship need, often developed though enhanced technologies and understanding of the role of open space in a healthy environment. The occurrence of major wildfires and flooding have lent a certain urgency to addressing how best to allocate conservation dollars.
Key recommendations of the Vital Lands Initiative are the development of a comprehensive, integrated plan that includes more substantial engagement and informationsharing with the community, and regular performance reporting to demonstrate transparency and efficient use of tax-payer dollars. The strong public relations components indicate a need for broader public understanding and support of future goals.
In summarizing the current Initiative, the district noted that it has incorporated detailed information about vegetation, land use, and hydrology throughout the county, along with other new technologies and research related to climate change, ecosystem services, and socio-economic trends, “to enhance support of and better inform land conservation strategies and actions.”
Climate change has been a large part of the development of new guidelines, which have included a 2018 agreement with the University of California, Santa Barbara, to continue mapping and prioritizing riparian areas for conservation, and evaluating watershed issues related to the fires of 2017. Earlier, in 2016, the district held a series of public workshops soliciting citizen input into future policymaking as it began the process of formalizing the Vital Lands Initiative.
Kristina Tierney is one of two people on the Open Space Advisory Committee appointed by Supervisor Susan Gorin to represent the First District, which includes Sonoma Valley. Tierney is an associate planner for the City of Sonoma and wellversed in making long-range decisions.
“This is the way to the future for planning in California,” she said, recalling how often her first planning efforts were required to include impacts of climate change. “We knew it was coming, but it was theoretical.”
Fifteen years later, “we are dealing with issues of wildfires, flooding on Highway 37, and pressing demands on the community. This is a great way for the county to adapt to the future.”
The past year of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of open space to the community and individual mental health, she said.
“I think it is really ahead of its time,” Tierney said. The Initiative can provide a framework to help construct better general plans, zoning codes, and other public policy documents. “It is extremely expensive and time-consuming to have a level of public participation; it costs more and takes longer than the general public understands.”
Gorin sees the Vital Lands Initiative as an “important and innovative approach … to gather data, review the asset value of the lands we held in fee title or on which we placed conservation easements, and survey the needs of our communities to better understand and prioritize future directions and investments of the voter-approved sales tax.”
“The data collected in the process of survey and assessment is critically important to inform future efforts on vegetation management, fuel reduction and carbon sequestration and hydrology of intact watersheds and stands of mature trees, as we move forward with all of these efforts on fire mitigation and climate change,” Gorin said.
Much public outreach went into developing the Vital Lands Initiative. Ag + Open Space held over 150 meetings with participation from more than 600 community members, tribal representatives, partners, technical advisors, and local and state-elected officials. Other meetings were held with the Board, Advisory Committee and Fiscal Oversight Commission members of the district.
In addition to the community workshops, four thematic workshops were convened that focused on water and wildlife, agriculture, greenbelts and community separators, and recreation.
Community engagement included targeted outreach to Spanish-speaking communities, organizations, and media outlets, with all materials translated into Spanish.
Ag + Open Space formed an Agricultural Technical Advisory Team and held 10 meetings at the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s offices to receive input and guidance from the agricultural community. Significant new data sets were developed to map priority conservation areas, to evaluate conservation threats and trends, and to share information with the Board and the community. They include information related to vegetation, agricultural use, infrastructure, wildlife habitat, streams, wetlands, hydrology, groundwater, wildlife corridors, community health, and economic vitality. Many of these datasets were developed in partnership with local entities such as Sonoma Water, with over $3 million in funding from state and national partners such as NASA, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California State Coastal Conservancy, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.
This information is may be accessed at www.sonomaopenspace. org.