VOTMA – What we’re for, in good times and bad
By Todd Board, VOTMA board member
Transparency, accountability, balance, engagement – these commonplace words can make our eyes glaze over, if we aren’t given pause to think about them. That’s why I call these ideas out up front, in invitation to focus on them together. As many may know, VOTMA (Valley of the Moon Alliance) is a volunteer nonprofit, monitoring developments that may significantly impact Sonoma Valley, and advocating County actions and policies when we believe warranted. Now more than ever, we see the above qualities as critical to the future vision of Sonoma Valley and County.
Transparency is necessary to sustain trust and confidence in human affairs. That’s true whether we’re talking about individuals, groups, governmental units, commercial entities, or other forms of human activity. As a concrete example, as some may know, recently the County has been moving toward approval of a very large industrial warehouse on Highway 121 near 8th Street East and Schellville (APs 128-442-014 and -017).
When originally permitted some years ago, the stated intent was for this warehouse to focus on exporting Sonoma County agricultural products (mainly wine), thus importing profit from the wider world back into our County. The originally permitted complex envisioned a number of separate, smaller buildings. Flash forward to more recent times, and now we have just one very large building proposed as an Amazon distribution center.
Is that a net benefit to Sonoma Valley and County? Is it a net burden? We don’t know, because Amazon’s intended change of use (and scope) for this facility has not yet been subject to public review and vetting. Globally, Amazon has increased consumer convenience, and expanded potential for some merchants. Locally, though, it’s unclear what the traffic (and greenhouse gas) impacts of this project would be, both nearby and more broadly on Sonoma Valley roadways.
While such a facility would of course have workers in it, would these be “net job additions” to our County (or more commuters into the County), and would they be “net wage additions” (or would they put downward pressure on wages of delivery drivers in the County)? Again, we simply don’t know enough to answer the questions. VOTMA and our south valley partners Mobilize Sonoma are working toward greater transparency from Permit Sonoma to illuminate these and related issues. We know that some aspect of the project recently triggered a stop-work notice from Permit Sonoma, but, as of this writing, we don’t know what the nature and scope of this is either. If this topic interests you, stay tuned.
Accountability is also key to sustaining public trust. Specifically, applicants are accountable for compliance with County permit conditions, and the County must be accountable to all of us for process transparency and enforcing applicant compliance after permits are issued, including consequences for permit violations. In the Supervisors’ virtual meeting on May 19, Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick shared welcome news that the County is making another attempt to coordinate scheduling of public events, as the County now works toward winery event guidelines in the first half of 2021. As some may recall, a similar attempt focused on winery events failed some years ago, because many wine industry participants simply chose to ignore it. This time around, the County must be accountable to the public in requiring event-holders to provide the information needed to make an event coordination program effective.
Such a program needn’t be micro-management or draconian – it can benefit all involved, including those wishing to hold events, if we behave like we’re all part of a system that needs to work for everyone. VOTMA board members have played varying roles in the larger world of commerce over the years, and we’re not anti-commerce by any stretch. But, we believe Sonoma Valley commerce must exist in a rules-based framework reflecting transparency and accountability from the County and businesses.
Balance is a good way to extend the preceding thoughts. In practical terms, VOTMA seeks sustainable balance between community, ecology, and economy in Sonoma Valley – long term, each of the three legs on the stool needs the other two. We also believe that assessment of applications with significant impacts needs to balance benefits to Sonoma County with expected burdens, in a pragmatic and business-like manner.
Again thinking about the Victory Station/Amazon application, this balancing assessment needs to focus not just narrowly on (potential) package delivery convenience, or “jobs” in the abstract. We need to better understand how much it may ultimately “privatize profit, but socialize costs,” in terms of impacts on County traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, road infrastructure costs, “net” job gains and County financial impacts, wage pressures on similar/competing services, and so forth. It’s entirely possible that the County has carefully assessed these kinds of balancing factors – if so, we’re all stakeholders; let’s see the results.
So where are we? Sonoma Valley residents can have more confidence when there is transparency, accountability, a vision of balance, and adequate opportunities for citizen…
…Engagement. We’ve all experienced the significant dislocations tied to wildfires, power shutdowns, COVID-19, and resulting economic and life management stresses. It can be tempting to sideline attention toward topics with longer-term implications, like County development policies, tourism and traffic impacts, groundwater sustainability, and re-visioning of the SDC campus. These issues can seem abstract, even invisible, as we grapple with more urgent, shared concerns.
Still, as we all can see, adapting to the open-ended reality of life with COVID-19 is gradually moving forward in Sonoma County. We all want the economy to re-emerge, thoughtfully, safely, and sustainably; likewise, many seek a sensible return to a semblance of “improved normalcy.” Soon enough, we’ll need to turn our attention again to keeping Sonoma Valley and County a uniquely vibrant and livable place, by making sure we don’t allow it to be loved too much, with benefits enjoyed today and burdens looming as a future hangover.
Transparency, accountability, balance, engagement: precisely because we’ve been both forced and allowed to step back and review what really matters, these principles of civic health have renewed relevance. We encourage everyone, as some sense of “improved normalcy” emerges, to take a fresh look at these important notions, and to assess how each of us can support them with our attention, energies, ideas, and actions. As always, we also welcome your thoughts on how VOTMA can be as useful as possible in this regard.
Last, with the ongoing fluidity of the COVID-19 situation, VOTMA is holding off on public meetings for the time being. However, you can always connect with us at VOTMA.org or on Facebook. Stay well!