First District Planning Commissioners talk turkey
Whether you’re building a new carport in your driveway or bringing in a multi-million dollar winery project, Sonoma County requires that the project be reviewed and approved by a long, complex and often expensive process, the end of which is a decision by the Planning Commissioners who are the penultimate court of review along the way. While their decisions are usually final, they can be appealed to the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Planning commissioners are appointed by the county’s five supervisors, two per district. Dick Fogg and Greg Carr represent the First Supervisorial District. Between them, they bring over 50 years of planning experience to the job, providing an invaluable amount of knowledge of the process.
Fogg, 79, is a retired businessman who has served on the Planning Commission since 2002 when he was appointed by then Supervisor Mike Cale. His appointment was re-confirmed by Valerie Brown and Susan Gorin as they succeeded to the job. He has served on the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission since it was formed in 1998, and has chaired both the Planning Commission and its alter-ego, the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Greg Carr, 67, has spent his entire life working for the county planning agency in several capacities, starting as an intern while finishing his studies in environmental issues with a planning emphasis in 1977 and 1978. He went directly to the county and worked in planning until his retirement in 2008. He volunteered for the Planning Commission in 2012 and has served ever since.
Both men are married and live in the City of Sonoma with their spouses, and both have grown children. Both were born out of state and came to live in the North Bay as adults, with Carr graduating from Sonoma State University in 1978.
The issues challenging development decisions have changed over the past 30 years, with the agonies of urban growth and expansion seemingly settled in the 1990s with the adoption of Urban Growth Boundaries and Community Separators (which will again come before voters this year). At the same time, the rapid expansion of wineries and tourism related projects have proliferated, bringing a different set of issues with new project applications.
Fogg and Carr both feel that the county’s strong General Plan has done a lot to settle land use issues by providing guidelines and policies to help with decisions.
“We have a good General Plan,” Fogg said. “It may need some tuning up and sanding down in the next go around.” Fogg sat in on eight years of hearings for the last General Plan. “I remember every one of those.” Carr was in charge of the General Plan process at the time and Fogg attributes a lot of its success to him.
The proliferation of wineries and concomitant events, along with tasting rooms and commercial production, have generated a whole new set of issues.
“You have to look at the proliferation of wineries from a couple of levels,” Fogg said. “One is that other forms of agriculture are essentially gone in the First District. There’s wine and that’s it. That has been an important driving force behind tourism. Tourism used to be supplemental to whatever we were doing. But with our beautiful landscape and the wine business, the wine trends toward bigger international ownership and not local control. It’s becoming a different animal.”
“The big land use issues in the valley have been events and the impact of tourism,” Carr said. “The most difficult part is trying to wrangle with the cumulative impact issue. For many years, we looked at things on a project-by-project review. Compounding that is the lack of definition of what an event is. I don’t think we are adequately equipped yet, and without some focused information about what events are allowed, it will be difficult to decide what the perfect number of events is for a winery or other agricultural endeavor.”
Both commissioners feel that resolving these issues will be a political problem.
“Pushing the event issue to the forefront to the point where the Board of Supervisors is willing to tackle it or at least look at it as an issue has been really difficult to achieve,” Carr said. “Only two districts are affected by that issue to any degree, the First and the Fourth.”
Fogg was very direct: “What is going to happen in the next 20 to 40 years is what the Board of Supervisors wants to happen. The caliber and foresight of the supervisors is integral to where we are going. That’s true of the (Sonoma) City Council, the SVCAC, and the planning agencies.”
Carr and Fogg both took note of the changing demographics in the county and Valley, with emerging Hispanic populations and businesses having greater impact and input into planning. These demographics will play out in future elections and appointments as leaders emerge and demands are made for new policy directions.
Traffic is an ongoing issue with development, but not all of it is directly related to local development. Since Sonoma County became a net importer of commuters more than 20 years ago, there has been a heavy increase in commuter traffic from Solano and Contra Costa counties and beyond, an increase directly associated with the lack of affordable housing in Sonoma.
When asked what’s important in the future, Fogg said, “We need to protect our Community Separators, protect hillside ordinances, need to protect UGBs [urban growth boundaries]. We need to be careful. Pretty much the laws are in place, but it takes political will to enforce the laws. It takes verification and inspectors which we have been woefully light on.”
Carr laments the ongoing loss of trust in government reflected in the national dialog. “There was a time when public service was considered a good thing to do.”