Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) ballot initiative is expiring in December of 2020. This leaves the city and its citizens with a few options.
One is for the city to extend the current law for a few more years and vet the UGB along with the new General Plan process. Another is for citizens to place the same law on the ballot for a vote, for another 20 years. I have been told by the primary UGB advocates that they plan to place the exact same UGB and language on the ballot in 2020, this before any city public meeting discussion has started on the matter. I’ll explore all this below.
The pressure to do something by 12/20 is based on fear that developers will all of a sudden have carte blanche to turn Sonoma into San Jose. But, since the council can vote to extend the exact current UGB law, and the council is highly unlikely to open the doors to unfettered development, the pressure of running out of time is not really accurate.
In fact, I believe that the council all would like to see a comprehensive economic development and housing plan done, as part of the new General Plan process. This would be really good planning! If schedules have gotten out of whack with UGB authorization and the General Plan timetable, the simplest thing to do, that leaves the most options open, is to extend the current UGB for two years, for as long as HHH are guaranteed as the majority. If Amy wins re-reelection, and I don’t see her losing, and things are still stalled, another verbatim UGB extension can be put in place if need be.
It is ironic that by questioning the UGB, and being open to thinking about it in new ways, that I find myself in the same camp as developers. I know a few, and they don’t have horns on their heads… My position here is not to judge developers but that Sonoma has enough market rate housing already; I’m not advocating for any more market rate developments. Luxury market distortions have taken a normal amount of housing stock here and made it inaccessible to the bulk of people who need it.
This displaces the area median income workforce, and in order to maintain the diverse demographic called for in the General Plan, Sonoma is going to have to make possible the building of deed restricted Affordable Housing to make up for what the market has taken away. Lack of planning has again provided us with the legit need for a government fostered correction.
Since land use is the ground upon which the General Plan rests, it needs to be decided first. After 20 years, it is reasonable to look at land use alternatives for the next 20 years. Adapting means looking at possible changes. Adapting may also mean staying put. Whatever the city decides, this should not be done under a false pressure when more time can easily be made and time can be spent vetting alternatives.
The above-mentioned potential comprehensive city plans would pre-define zoning and what the city would like to see done. Then the city drives the process, for what values it wants to see, not developers. We have electeds who can maybe do this! Should the UGB be expanded, specific plans within the General Plan can address fears of an unregulated developer, market rate bonanza. Maybe there are alternatives for which extending the UGB boundary would make sense. We can’t know unless we have time and space for an open-minded process.
In my thinking, land use, the General Plan, the UGB, and a community roadmap for housing and development need to be worked as a whole package, with a vision for the whole lower valley area in mind, not just Sonoma as an island unto itself. Why? The city’s decisions affect all valley residents. Accounting for a sense of a shared future is smart, good planning, inclusive, and reasonable. Because city General Plan and UGB decisions should account for local county residents and the county General Plan as well.
One consistent framing point by UGB advocates is the use of the term “sprawl.” I see it used in a scare-tactic way, as no one ever really defines the word, it is just set up as a negative bucket and left at that. “Sprawl” is San Jose; working within the lower Sonoma Valley urban and semi-urban service area is not. All parties agree that “infill” is desirable, it is efficient and smart for many good reasons; the UGB debate here is about where to draw the lines, and who, what, and where to include or exclude. Locally, what some call sprawl, others may call infill.
The lower Sonoma Valley has a combined, already developed, similar density urban service area (USA), and semi USA covered by municipal water delivery and sewer services. This dense, developed area can be seen on a map as lying on an axis from the Sanitation District treatment plant to Agua Caliente Rd. Any open-minded land use planner would look at maps of Sonoma Valley and see the City of Sonoma as an artificial island amidst what could easily be one municipality.
Mine is a vison of “infill”, connecting the dots of the brownfields, built out areas. Some see 8th Street East and the industrial corridor area to MacArthur as a legit target for city infill. If you went to the third city housing meeting, this is all like putting the Lego pieces on the planning maps; you look at options, you be flexible, you negotiate, you listen to the other guys, you decide together the way forward.
The conversation then moves to how Sonoma, with its new General Plan and new UGB authorization, will account for Sonoma being one of the whitest, most wealthy cities in the county? How will Sonoma provide for its fair demographic share and have an economy that provides living wages? The city already has inclusive language in the current General Plan, it just has not been realized; free market allegiance by past administrations and councils have allowed Sonoma to drift from its inclusive ideals and to become a highly exclusive community. The current General Plan may be well-written and forward looking, but it is not well-executed. Either Sonoma has to take the bull by the horns and integrate by class and race, to forcibly include the excluded, or the city can look to joining with the Springs area and simply unify what has been segregated.
These are things implied by the placement of an urban growth boundary.
Taking in the “other side of tracks” is a planning idea that has been expressed for years by different local players. How to address local under-represented people? How to make possible disadvantaged community self-determination? Sonoma can either integrate all on its own, within the same UGB, or it can team up and look to annex the Springs demographics it has displaced. For any future annexation to be possible, the UGB first has to cast a net in that direction, i.e. it has to be changed. The top UGB advocate told me she was not opposed to this. Certainly there is resistance to this idea from white stakeholders in the Springs who don’t want city “regulation.” Latinos however, would welcome the tighter focus of city representation, and the chance to elect a possible district representative to the council.
Are the General Plan, the UGB, zoning, segregation, and affordable housing issues linked? Yes, they are. What we are seeing in Sonoma and the Springs is a microcosm of the same issues roiling the country right now. Two Americas. Two Sonoma Valleys. The General Plan and city land use, tied to whatever UGB, needs to explicitly address these core equity issues up front. What’s the plan? Let’s not leave things for a wing a prayer without proper time and consideration. We can make that time with no change to the current UGB.
If city voters care about equity issues and are also to buy the same UGB for another 20 years, UGB advocates should say just what their plans are for housing and land use. Cut the “sprawl” talk and say in what specific ways your UGB address the larger issues. How will the necessary housing be made possible when land prices are already sky high for central lots? Where will the good paying jobs come from? How will the green checkmate be overcome and residents helped to accept greater congestion, higher density and taller buildings?
In some ways, advocates for the same UGB for the next 20 years seem to be tacitly supporting an inequitable status quo, and also seem to be more classic environmentalists. The valley has a way lot of open space and green separators already, SDC lands are in the fold, ag lands are all around full of high-dollar grapes. What about poor people who are suffering? We just send them somewhere else? Do we say we don’t have enough money, resources, water, or carrying capacity for the poor, even as the city tips further and further into the lap of luxury? Is this the Bay Area way to justify white privilege? Given the very strong existent local environmental protections, and the salient lack of social equity, if we need a bit more space to account for our people, and need to shuffle some funds to get it done, that is a fair ask, to at least consider in any public UGB process.
The alternative is to vote on the same UGB for another 20 years, and then somehow make everything work in a very costly, congested, and tight space along Broadway and Highway 12, while the bulk of town remains as low density single family homes, in a de facto segregation.