Top stories of 2019
PG&E power shutoffs come to townWell, we can't say PG&E didn't warn us, but when they conducted multiple Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) in October in our neck of the woods, it was no small inconvenience to both residents and local businesses alike.
Depending on where you lived, you had to go without power anywhere from one to six days in a row. Some of us just left town, some stayed with a generator or two to keep food from spoiling and the lights on, and some of us just coped in the dark.
PG&E initiated the PSPS when there was a red flag warning declared by the National Weather Service, combined with low humidity and predicted high winds - the worst scenario for potential wildfires. Throw in the devastating Kincade Fire that started in Geyserville on Oct. 23, and it all added up to PG&E being super-cautious and turning the lights off multiple times.
Conditions ripe for a fire rippled across central and northern California, and PG&E shut off power for nearly 2.5 million people at one point or another.
Locally, businesses took a big hit. October is a busy time of year for restaurants, wineries and retailers, with numerous community events, and tourists inundating the area for harvest.
Inns and hotels had to cancel reservations and couldn't take new ones since it was unclear how long the power would be out. Many restaurants had to close completely, losing tens of thousands of dollars in lost food and revenue, not to mention the lost wages of hundreds of workers in the area.
To rub salt in the wound, businesses then discovered that their insurers wouldn't cover losses incurred during a “planned” power shutoff, even for safety reasons.
Local fire officials feel that, given the combination of high winds and dry fuels on some of the PSPS days, the shutoffs may very well have prevented more fires.
But the power outages bring up many questions down the line. What's the proper balance between reliable PG&E service and public safety? Can future shutoffs better target specific areas and not be so broad? Does this really have to be the new normal?
Rebuilding our communitiesTo say that the last two years have been a learning curve for those whose homes were lost or damaged in the October 2017 fires would be an understatement - even for those considered more “expert” in the rebuilding process. “Most architects have never dealt with a complete rebuild from a major disaster, so there were some surprises there,” said O'Donnell Lane resident Mike Witkowski in March. Witkowski was able to move back into his rebuilt home in Glen Ellen in October, only two months later than expected - and exactly two years to the date it burned down - and got the county's final sign off on Dec. 2.
Surprises for the hundreds of residents who lost homes in Glen Ellen and Kenwood have included challenges like the number of inspections required during each step of construction, dishonest or unreliable contractors, construction delays during an exceptionally wet winter, the additional requirements necessary to bring older houses (most built in the 70s) up to 2019 building codes, and more.
Many rebuilders were also shocked by the skyrocketing price per square foot and found they were sorely underinsured. With nearly 6,000 homes burned across the county, competition and costs rose rapidly for construction materials and labor.
In winter 2017, quoted bids for stick-built homes were hovering around $400-500 per square foot, but a year later some residents reported getting quotes for as high as $800 per square foot. First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her home in Oakmont, said that she, like the vast majority of fire survivors, was underinsured to cover the replacement cost of her home. She and other fire survivors have traveled repeatedly to Sacramento and asked State Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara to put pressure on the big insurance companies to extend coverage of living expenses for an additional year beyond the minimum two for 2017 fire survivors. So far only Farmers and CSAA Insurance have agreed to the extension. Gorin doesn't expect to be back in her home until next year.
Some people have just moved on - residents unable or unwilling to face the overwhelming process and cost of rebuilding a house from scratch. According to BARIES real estate data for Glen Ellen and Kenwood, 30 burned lots have been sold between Nov. 2017 and Dec. 2019, the bulk of those in the Treehaven Lane and Warm Springs Road areas. Four lots are currently listed for sale.
Even some of those who decided to rebuild, reflecting on the many challenges of rebuilding, say they would not do it again; the twists and turns were too numerous, the emotional toll too high. But those who have made it through within the two-year window are ecstatic to have a new place to call home for the holidays.
As of Dec. 9, 124 construction permits have been filed in the Glen Ellen area. 17 of those have been marked “construction complete,” 89 are “in construction,” and 18 have permit review in process or construction pending. In Kenwood, 79 permits have been filed. 16 have been marked “construction complete,” 57 are “in construction,” and six have permit review in process or construction pending.
Official numbers released by Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue are that 140 residences burned in Kenwood and 231 in Glen Ellen.
Despite the setbacks, the outlines of neighborhoods are once again evident in areas like Treehaven Lane in Kenwood and O'Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen, where nearly all the homes burned to the ground two years ago. Today, the majority of lots in both places have structures - if not houses - on them and many of those still in rebuild mode are eyeing a spring timeframe with hope.
Fire district consolidation stumblesGetting Sonoma County's widely scattered and highly independent fire districts to cooperate long enough to come up with a central administration has been one of the toughest projects the county board of supervisors has tackled in many years, and that's saying something. A 14-month effort that put over 40 fire chiefs and others at one table failed to hammer out a tolerable format. Instead, they finally agreed in late 2015 to take one step at a time, forming regional units and perhaps eventually consolidating into a single, county-wide agency to coordinate hiring, standards, equipment, communications, and everything else involved with fire and emergency services.
Today, the process stumbles along, having achieved some success with the formation of the Sonoma County Fire District this year (a consolidation of Windsor, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley districts with Mountain Volunteer Fire Deptartment). Sonoma Valley's five districts - Kenwood, Glen Ellen, MVFD, Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority (a combination of the City of Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon), and Schell-Vista districts - are on the brink of moving forward, although Schell-Vista and City of Sonoma dropped out of this year's efforts, and Kenwood turned out to be ineligible because of a disparity in pay with other districts. A resolution to join in was tabled until March 10, 2020, to see what happens with the fire tax on the March 3 ballot.
In 2017, Glen Ellen Fire District contracted out its administration and staffing to the Valley of the Moon Fire District (VOMFD) for the next five years, with a starting cost of $730,000 a year, a cost that escalates over the potential five years allowed in the contract. VOMFD, for its part, has been administering the City of Sonoma's fire department since 2002, operating as Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority under a Joint Powers Agreement between the city and the rural fire district.
Earlier this summer, Mayacamas agreed to have VOM administer their small volunteer department, which operates under a county umbrella organization that has supported the smallest volunteer fire departments in Sonoma County.
And on Nov. 12, VOMFD and the California General Services Administration contracted to have one shift at the Sonoma Developmental Center's Eldridge fire station staffed by at least two VOMFD paramedics, taking one of that station's three 48-hour shifts in rotation. Fire Chief Steve Akre said the two firefighters will stay at the Eldridge fire house and use Eldridge equipment for the entire shift.
The term of the contract is through the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2020, with options to extend, in one-year increments, through the end of 2022, when the Developmental Center's property is scheduled to be divested by the state.
Hood Mountain Regional Park to expand by 250+ acresLast month, Sonoma Land Trust inked a deal to purchase 654 acres of ridge top property near Sugarloaf State and Hood Mountain Regional parks, coming one step closer to uniting the biggest swath of protected wildlife habitat in Sonoma Valley.
Known as the McCormick Ranch, after the McCormick family who homesteaded the land in the 1840s, the property straddles both Napa and Sonoma counties, and affords breathtaking views of both valleys from its highest point - Big Hill - at 2,500 feet. The purchase is scheduled to close in November 2020 and ownership will then be transferred to local park agencies. The 253-acre portion of the land in Sonoma County will be added to the adjacent 7,800-acre Hood Mountain Regional Park, and the 401-acre Napa County parcel will go to Napa County Regional Park. Both agencies will jointly manage the new parkland, with the hopes of one day expanding the multi-use Bay Area Ridge Trail and developing backcountry camping opportunities.
In addition to opportunities for human recreation, the new parkland will also ensure that the animal residents of the area will be able to move freely between the two counties and through the Mayacamas Mountains, a significant wildlife corridor for the area. The ranch is located in the center of the Marin Coast-Blue Ridge Critical Linkage, an 85-mile wildlife movement corridor stretching from Point Reyes to the Berryessa-Snow Mountain National Monument in Lake County. Protecting the ranch is particularly important for the survival of wide-ranging carnivores like bears and mountain lions.
Additionally, McCormick Ranch proved critical to Cal Fire's efforts to combat the Nuns Fire in 2017. Its 2,500-foot-high summit was used to create a firebreak and staging area that prevented the blaze from crossing into Napa County and threatening St. Helena.
SLT has spent much of the last three years working to assemble the major funding needed and has secured commitments for $12.75 million. That includes a landowner bargain sale of $3.625 million, $6.875 million from public funding sources, $2 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $250,000 from an individual donor, leaving an additional $1.75 million to be raised by next year.
After the purchase is completed, Sonoma County Regional Parks will initiate a planning process with public engagement to develop a management plan for the property.
Future of SDC property still up in the airThe ongoing saga of the state's shutdown of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) took major steps forward in 2019, with the creation of a detailed timeline for deciding what to do with it and funding to hire a consultant and underwrite a three-year project to develop a Specific Plan for disposition of the land and buildings. The Department of General Services (the state agency that is disposing of the property) and Sonoma County supervisors formally agreed on a $43 million state-funded budget to maintain the buildings and grounds for three years, along with $3.3 million for the Specific Plan development.
While specific, the timelines proposed will need to be flexible. Selection and signing of the consultant has already fallen three months behind the original schedule, which calls for positive results in the next year and a half. A contract is expected to be signed by year's end. A panel of 15 citizens was recently appointed to a Planning Advisory Team (PAT) to advise the consulting firm, which has been identified as Dyett Bhatia, an Oakland-based urban planning company.
While most of the undeveloped property has been promised to parks or open space uses, the 200 or so buildings in various stages of disrepair (half are unrecoverable according to a previous survey) are problematic. While some buildings have been targeted by local groups for history, library, community use, etc., the cost of remediation and/or removal could run over $100 million, according to one informal estimate.
Locals who had their eye on using those buildings were upset when DGS shuttered the campus steam plant that provided heat and other utilities to the buildings as of Aug. 15. DGS said the plant was violating EPA regulations daily, incurring fines, and that alternate methods of keeping the buildings dry are being deployed.
Oakmont in process of buying golf coursesThe year saw a vigorous debate among Oakmonters over the future of the privately run Oakmont Golf Club (OGC), with its two public 18-hole golf courses, club house, and restaurant and banquet facilities, spread out over 250 acres.
The OGC is a separate corporation from the Oakmont Village Association (OVA), which represents all Oakmont residents.
The OGC had faced financial problems over the last few years, and membership had been steadily declining. The OGC was put up for sale in the spring with an asking price of $4.8 million.
The board of directors of the OVA had always been open to exploring ways to keep local control of the golf courses, and decided to make a bid. First, though, an increase in monthly dues from Oakmonters would be required, which necessitated a community-wide vote.
Ballots were mailed in early July to Oakmont's 3,208 eligible voters, asking them to authorize a dues increase of up to $23 a month to help finance a purchase. The proposal would raise the monthly dues from $75 to $98.
There was opposition to the concept of making an offer to buy the OGC, with detractors saying purchasing the golf course and amenities was a financial black hole that would require more dues increases down the line.
The vote wasn't close, 1,968 to 707 in favor of the dues increase.
The OVA is now in the process of buying the golf courses and hopes to complete a $3.6 million purchase by February. (See story page 8). OVA has also signed a lease agreement with Advance Golf Partners to manage all the golf facilities after the sale is finalized.
New era of vegetation management Of all the methods of improving fire safety developed since the disastrous fires of the past three years, vegetation management may have the most impact on the average property owner. Getting underway this year, the county-sponsored program of removing vegetation has been handed to local fire departments and Cal Fire. Vegetation needs to be removed various distances away from homes (depending on configuration) and open spaces.
So far, 200 Glen Ellen properties have been inspected, and Kenwood inspections are underway.
Residential and commercial properties will be inspected by personnel from local fire departments who will be trained and deployed to every property in designated fire hazard areas to assess whether “vegetation management” is needed. A written report will be prepared and the landowner given up to 30 days to correct the issues. Fire departments will not enforce these citations, but the county could dispatch its own crews to do the work and bill the homeowner or place a lien on the property.
Open spaces and parks may be subjected to controlled burning to wipe out hazardous, dense undergrowth that becomes severely desiccated during long spring and summer months without rain and fog, conditions which have prevailed over the past decade. Controlled burn tests were performed at Glen Ellen's Bouverie Preserve in early 2017; the post-October blaze analyses were positive.
If the half-cent fire sales tax proposed for March passes, it may fund a county crew to perform vegetation management.
New directors at local non-profitsThis year saw changeover for some north valley-based nonprofit organizations.
Since 2012, Tjiska Van Wyk has been the executive director of Jack London Park Partners, the entity that partners with the State of California to run Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. Van Wyk came on board when the future of Jack London and many other state parks was in serious doubt, and helped cultivate a major draw of visitors to the park with Transcendence Theatre Company's Broadway-quality summer performances in the winery ruins.
Van Wyk will officially step down next year. A replacement has already been hired - Matt Leffert. Leffert has a strong background in fundraising, most recently with One Tam Partnership, an initiative of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to protect and steward over 50,000 acres on Mt. Tamalpais.
William McNamara, president and executive director of Quarry Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen, officially retired in October.
McNamara began at Quarryhill over 30 years ago, and has turned the garden into an internationally recognized home to one of the largest collections of scientifically documented, wild-sourced Asian plants in the western world.
Over the last three decades, McNamara traveled to China, Japan, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Myanmar in search of plants. Quarryhill now has over 25,000 plants.
The new executive director is Scot Medbury, current president of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The new job marks a return to the Bay Area for Medbury, who previously served as director of the San Francisco Botanical Garden and Conservatory of Flowers before moving to New York City in 2005. Medbury will begin his new position in February.
And finally, the Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood has hired its first-ever executive director, Chris Cable.
Cable will technically head up the non-profit arm of the observatory, the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association.
Cable is a biologist by training, but has spent the past 25 years running nonprofit science centers from Alaska to Colorado. Most notably, he was in charge of growing Alaska's only discovery center, the Imaginarium in Anchorage (similar to San Francisco's Exploratorium), from a small organization with a $400,000 annual budget and seven employees into an institution with an annual budget of $1.6 million and 20 employees that is now housed in its own wing at the Anchorage Art and Science Museum.
Gorin runs againIt's time to elect a supervisor again, with incumbents of the First, Third and Fifth districts up for re-election. For Sonoma Valley, that is Susan Gorin, who declared her intention to seek a third and final term next year. Her fellow supervisors Shirlee Zane (District 3) and Lynda Hopkins (District 5) are also running for re-election.
Sonoma City Councilman David Cook is Gorin's only challenger. Nominations closed on Dec. 6. Cook has served on the council since 2012, serving one term as mayor. He founded and manages Cook Vineyard Management, overseeing 475 acres of vineyards and olive orchards in Sonoma County. He is married and lives in Sonoma with his wife, Kiersten, and four children.
Since there are only two candidates, it is likely one will win more than 50 percent of the vote at the March 3 election. If neither does, there will be a runoff in November.
Groundwater Sustainability Plan deadline looms closerIn July, the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), the agency tasked by the state with developing a groundwater sustainability plan for southern Sonoma Valley by January 2022, decided to participate in the development of a well registration program for all groundwater users in the Sonoma Valley basin, a 70-square mile area extending from Slattery Road in Glen Ellen south to San Pablo Bay. The basin does not currently include Kenwood or Oakmont.
While at the moment there is no discussion of a fee to be assessed on groundwater users in the Sonoma Valley, the Sonoma Valley GSA is hoping to capitalize on the Santa Rosa GSA's efforts when it comes to well registration.
Santa Rosa Plain GSA is moving forward in Spring 2020; all groundwater users in the Santa Rosa Plain will receive notice that their well has been registered in the program.
A specific roll-out plan and timeline for the registration program in Sonoma Valley will be discussed at upcoming meetings, but it will likely be similar to what the Santa Rosa Plain GSA is doing.
This summer, the Santa Rosa GSA approved a fee of $19.90 per acre-foot of groundwater pumped annually for all groundwater users in the basin, the area extending from Santa Rosa west to Sebastopol and from Windsor south to Cotati. An acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons.
The fee is calculated on actual or estimated groundwater extraction of all users, but for the next three years will only be assessed on major municipal groundwater extractors - the cities of Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol; the Town of Windsor; and Sonoma Water - thanks to annual contributions from Sonoma County and Sonoma Water to offset the fees of residential, agricultural, school and other groundwater users in the unincorporated areas of the Santa Rosa Plain basin. Annual fees for those users will likely be lower, in the $1.99-$9.95 range, but will not have to be revisited for another three years.
The registration program will help the GSA fill in data gaps about the number of wells extracting groundwater. The GSA needs this data in order to better understand the current groundwater conditions - and plan for future management. It is important to note that the Sonoma Valley basin boundaries encompass only the valley floor and do not extend up to higher elevations.
An estimated 60 percent of all water demands in the Sonoma basin are met by groundwater. Imported water (from the Russian River via the Sonoma aqueduct), surface water, and recycled water supplement that.
Permit Sonoma administers all permits for wells within both unincorporated and incorporated areas of the groundwater basin (and the county as a whole), but most wells dug before the 1970s did not require permits. Most modern water wells are permitted through a ministerial process, but discretionary applications are required in certain hydrogeological areas. In 2018, preliminary data showed there are about 12,487 taxable parcels within the basin boundaries, but only about 1,706 known wells.
The Sonoma Valley GSA will hold a public workshop in Spring 2020 to discuss possible management areas, although no decisions will be made at that meeting. Groundwater monitoring (through voluntary programs and new shallow monitoring wells) is ongoing, and the GSA just recently applied for a grant for deeper monitoring wells. The Sonoma Valley GSA is funded by the agencies that created the GSA, and groundwater fees aren't likely to be discussed until 2021.
For more information on Sonoma Valley GSA, visit sonomavalleygroundwater.org. All board meetings are open to the public.
Resort property reportedly for saleLast May, the Kenwood Press reported that the undeveloped186-acre property in Kenwood, for years now slated as a resort, was for sale. A number of potential buyers have come through the site to kick the tires, but as of press time, no new information has been forthcoming.
The property sits on part of the old Graywood Ranch off of Sonoma Hwy. across from Lawndale Road, in the shadow of Hood Mountain.
Plans for a resort, vigorously opposed by a chunk of the community, were first approved by the Board of Supervisors back in 2004, with entitlements for a 50-room inn, 10,000 case winery, and a number of home sites.
It was March of 2018 when current owner, Chinese-owned Tohigh Investments, received a final design approval from the county Board of Supervisors, clearing the way to begin construction. But no sign of a shovel in the ground has materialized.
Tohigh Investments and its parent company, Oceanwide Holdings, have run into money issues on a number of its commercial holdings in the United States. In November, the San Francisco Business Times reported that Oceanwide had put up for sale its huge Oceanwide Center tower project in San Francisco, its under-construction Oceanwide Plaza in Los Angeles, and a tower development in New York.