Ben Boyce


Urban planning – don’t fence in the future

Posted on September 10, 2019 by Ben Boyce

As a veteran of the periodic Sonoma brouhahas over land-use decisions, I bear the scars to prove it. My rule of thumb is to weigh in only on those issues that are critical to the nature and character of the community I call home. The renewal of the Urban Growth Boundary 2020 is fast coming on us. It is time to pay close attention, because this is the juncture where the foundation for the next generation in the Sonoma Valley is being poured. 

Once that concrete sets up, that’s the new structure we operate in for decades. A decision of that magnitude will require a deep community discussion. Due diligence entails carefully re-evaluating the dated assumptions and the quite different economic and demographic mix that prevailed when the voters passed the current UGB. The long-term consequences of the 2020 renewal will require a similar level of community engagement. Let’s not fence in the future.

 I am throwing my hat, unsolicited, in the corner with Fred Allebach, chair of the Sonoma Community Services and Environment Commission, who has written persuasively about the need for a full public process for the 2020 UGB renewal. He lobbied the Sonoma City Council to keep an open mind before advocating renewal of the UGB, as is. He’s right.

As the former director of a labor/green coalition called the Accountable Development Coalition (ADC) from 2006-2010, I worked closely with Greenbelt Alliance on defending UGBs and community separators. Sadly, the 2008 crash dried up the money for these useful labor/green collaborations. We need another ADC now to help keep that fragile coalition intact. Unions and Greens are natural allies with structural tensions that need political skill to navigate.

If the liberal billionaires like Tom Steyer would like to really put their money to better uses than enriching a bunch of DC campaign consultants with a quixotic vanity presidential run, he would do like the right-wing oligarchs who fund hundreds of think tanks, policy shops, media operations, and full-service public relations firms. They are in it to win it.

As an avid consumer of local print news, I will summarize the state of play in local media to date. 

Reading Fred’s social media page had primed me to pay attention when I saw an editorial by from Index-Tribune Editor Jason Walsh, “Sonoma, to grow or not to grow?”: “By their very nature UGBs contribute to the tight reins on housing – coupled with Sonoma’s Growth Management Ordinance, which limits development in the city to a sparse 65 units on average per year, it’s no surprise Sonoma has witnessed the effects of the housing crisis first hand.” Walsh added, “Environmental Services Commission chair Fred Allebach implored the council … ‘not to have issues reduced to simplistic buzzwords like sprawl and character that are nothing but code for no changes and maintaining property owners’ status quo.’”

The first volley came from David Kendall and Ken Brown, Sonoma Valley Housing Group, who wrote in the August 22 issue of The Sonoma Valley Sun: “Particular attention needs to be paid to how UGB alternatives will affect housing affordability, and how each alternative will reflect the aspirations arrived at in the city’s Housing Our Community forums.” Ken was always a firm advocate for workforce housing during his tenure on the council.

Next, David Brigode, local affordable housing policy and development expert wrote an op-ed on August 26, 2019: “A rigid 30-year extension of the existing UGB, without flexibility and accommodation for future household creation, is anti-family, ethnically exclusive and a form of economic apartheid. Don’t put Sonoma in a straightjacket. Acknowledging the need for future affordable housing, and responsibly planning for it, is the true ‘smart growth.’”

The editorial response from the “UGB renewal ‘as is’ camp” came back the following week from Jack Ding, a volunteer with the Citizens to Renew City of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary. From his piece in the Sun: “While maintaining the existing boundary, we request that you increase the duration from 20 years to 30 years.”  Mr. Ding’s call for a 30-year extension really caught my attention. That’s overreach.

Finally, the regional director of Green Belt Alliance,, Teri Shore, weighed in with ‘Urban planning for Sonoma’s next generation’ posted in a June issue of The Sun: “While we may trust our current City Council, they face increasing development pressure. The Council will also change in the decades ahead..Renewing the UGB by a vote of the people in November 2020 will forge a positive, climate-smart future for our city as development pressure to sprawl mounts.”

The stage is set and my bet is on the table. Next move?


6 thoughts on “Urban planning – don’t fence in the future

  1. Ben, you always write intelligent interesting articles. Even if we don’t always agree! You remember when we first passed the UGBs. Today they are proven to work and have made Sonoma County the envy of the Bay Area. Not sure why folks are bringing up the same old arguments from decades ago that sprawl will improve affordability. It doesn’t. Just look around. We need to look forward, not back, and plan for innovative new ways to meet the housing crisis within the existing UGB. Expanding the UGB won’t help affordable housing, as history shows. Most of the other cities have renewed their UGBs for longer than 20 years. The voters can change it anytime they want to, it doesn’t tie their hands. Yes it does prevent political actors from getting their way with campaign contributions and lawsuit threats. In any cases, the UGB renewal is and will be a public process that is already underway. It is about to expire so now is the time to take action. The hype from Fred, David and others who are using inflammatory terms to attack those who support the simple renewal of the UGB certainly won’t help things.When they go low, we go high!

  2. A number of influential locals attending a recent Greenbelt meeting came away impressed by how rigid and inflexible Teri’s and the Greenbelt UGB line is. Many see a similarity to religious fundamentalism. This UGB thing is an article faith; it’s received wisdom. There is no questioning or dialogue allowed. If you do want to explore and look outside the Greenbelt box, then you are “attacking” or dismissed as wrong off the bat. This style is not conducive to finding any win-wins.

    Let’s look at a test case, the possible 62-unit Habitat for Humanity project on 285 Napa Rd. This parcel is outside the current UGB, and it meets all the UGB criteria for annexation. Will Teri and Greenbelt support this? If not, then they will be in the unenviable position of being against a major social good, with nothing close to comparable to offer anywhere or anytime soon.

    1. I totally agree with you Fred. Its hard to understand why Terry would refused to be open to a conversation with smart people like Ben, Ken, and so many others

  3. I’m pleased to be getting a response to my article and that it is getting some discussion. Teri Shore and I worked together on the ADC and I am committed to maintaining our collegial relationship. That stated, I found the response from Ms. Shore puzzling and filled with counterfactuals and debatable assertions, which she and her colleagues at GBA seem to see as beyond the need for further discussion. My next article will call for a decennial UGB renewal, to make the best use of fresh census data.

    This quote I pulled from the response illustrates my contention that what GBA regards as a settled matter is anything but resolved. It is by no means true that the UGB does not affect affordable housing stock. Casting this as an old and discredited argument is leaping over a mountain of evidence, the most obvious to the eye the severe mismatch between workers and affordable housing in the county.

    That mismatch was problematic 20 years ago when the first UGB was passed. This social crisis is now an emergency, which far surpasses the aesthetic preferences of an affluent minority for a style of community character that serves their needs in my calculus of human and political values.

    “Not sure why folks are bringing up the same old arguments from decades ago that sprawl will improve affordability. It doesn’t. Just look around. We need to look forward, not back, and plan for innovative new ways to meet the housing crisis within the existing UGB. Expanding the UGB won’t help affordable housing, as history shows.”

    There are at least three highly debatable assertions in this one paragraph. All this will get hashed out in the public process for UGB renewal. We will be promoting a ten-year renewal as a prudent public policy measure

  4. Everyone here is much smarter than I am. They have been at this for a long time, while I have been a corporate drone, then a self employed floral designer. I have only delved into local politics and issues very recently. But, the big question I have in all of this is, how do we insure that what gets built benefits the workers in this valley? What is to stop developments of million dollar homes, hotels for the wealthy and a bunch of other stuff replacing open space with things we really do not need? And how do we make sure this place does not end up looking like Walnut Creek? I have not made up my mind yet on this issue, so please give me more specifics.

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