It is hard to believe that it is already December. As many do at this time of year, I am reflecting on the ups and downs of the past twelve months, the significant progress made on pressing county issues, and the ongoing work and challenges ahead. COVID-19 is still with us, and while I am proud of the vaccine rollout and its impact over the past year in our county, the concern of another winter surge and the Omicron variant requires that we remain vigilant in the face of the virus for yet another holiday season.
At the top of my mind as we near the end of the year, and looking ahead to 2022, is the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) Specific Plan. Permit Sonoma released three draft alternatives for the SDC Specific Plan at the beginning of November, kicking off a new period of community engagement. Hundreds of community members have participated in outreach meetings and sent emails with their thoughts, closely analyzing the details of the three alternatives.
I thank you all for your thoughtful questions and participation in this ongoing process, and I understand that many have not felt heard. I have seen many concerns: over density, a lack of affordable housing, the wildlife corridor, fire resiliency, traffic, and more. I share some of these concerns myself. As we move forward, I encourage everyone to continue to share feedback and stay engaged. As you look at the draft alternatives, ask yourself not only what your criticisms are, but also what would you like to see? What is your vision for the future of SDC?
While this is an ongoing process, we must follow the timeline established by the State of California. In late January the Project Team will bring a preferred alternative before the Board of Supervisors, after which they will prepare a draft plan and environmental review. The information should be posted on the Permit Sonoma website by the end of December. By September 2022, the final specific plan and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) will come to the Board for adoption. Please sign up for updates on the Project Team website, https://www.sdcspecificplan.com/, to ensure you stay engaged every step of the way in 2022.
Another area where your Board of Supervisors has been busy this year is cannabis. In June 2021, the Board of Supervisors directed Permit Sonoma staff to complete a comprehensive update of the cannabis program, based on community input and an EIR. Additionally, in October, the Board adopted an Urgency Ordinance, set to expire in September of 2023, prohibiting new permits for large-scale multi-tenant commercial cannabis cultivation. Lastly, in November, the Board approved the creation of a Cannabis Local Equity Program as part of a state program to promote equity in the legal cannabis marketplace and eliminating barriers to entering the regulated cannabis industry.
In 2022, I expect the Board to continue the hard work towards ensuring that the cannabis program in Sonoma County works for everyone – operators, neighbors, and those historically disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition among them.
One more topic I know is of great interest to First District residents is the regulation of short-term rentals, through the county’s Vacation Rental Ordinance. In the spring, we will hear from Permit Sonoma staff on potential updates to the Vacation Rental Ordinance. I receive frequent calls and emails from constituents about vacation rentals in their neighborhoods, and have addressed concerns in the past with the development of exclusion zones in the First District. However, it is clear some further fine-tuning needs to be done to ensure the best possible experience for both vacation rental neighbors and operators in our county.
Some updates that have been considered are the shift of vacation rentals from a use permit to a business license, improving the processes for reporting violations at vacation rentals, ensuring that operators inform visitors about emergency preparedness and response, and more. I look forward to seeing what is brought before the Board in the spring, and I hope the community stays engaged on this important topic. The Board did hear from the community on concerns about the “fractional ownership” model of Pacaso. One home in Sonoma Valley is operating under this model, and the board is following this issue and developing options for potential action in the future.
To close, I will touch on a process that will conclude this month and will have impacts on our county for at least the next ten years: redistricting. As you may know, Sonoma County has been in the process of redrawing the Supervisorial District boundaries this year. This happens every 10 years after the Census count to ensure that Supervisorial districts have roughly equal population and are compliant with State and Federal law. Sonoma County was not alone in this endeavor; this is happening all across the state, from your local School Board to the Congressional representatives, and everything in between.
While the decennial redistricting process used to occur quietly, without much public interest or input, that is changing. In 2008, California voters approved the Voters FIRST Act, which created the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. This Commission redrew our State legislative and congressional boundaries based on the 2010 census results, and is again hard at work in 2021. This year saw the addition of a new law to help guide the redistricting process at the County and local level. The California Fair Maps Act recently passed by the State Legislature creates a uniform standard across counties for the redistricting process and requires counties to conduct outreach and public hearings, and prioritize identified “communities of interest.”
In Sonoma County, we appointed an Advisory Redistricting Committee (ARC), a 19-member committee who did public outreach and drafted maps in advance of the Board’s deliberations. The ARC had eight public meetings, and County staff and public outreach consultants held many more focus groups with areas throughout the County. In addition, the Board has held five public hearings and workshops to date.
The Board has approved a final redistricting map for our five districts. The process is more difficult than anyone would imagine, to balance the populations and honor the equity criteria established by the ARC. I disagreed with the initial ARC map as it bifurcated Bennett Valley (a community of interest) and combined the entirety of Rohnert Park with the coastal area of the County. We worked through several long discussions and mapping exercises with the help of our demographic consultant. I received emails from so many expressing opinions on the various map options, and I thoughtfully considered each one. Indeed, redistricting captured the attention of our entire County – a healthy exercise in democracy.
As Supervisors, we next roll up our sleeves and work to introduce ourselves to new areas in our districts. District 1 has expanded into Santa Rosa in certain areas but remains intact in Sonoma Valley, Mark West watershed, Bennett Valley and the many areas devastated by fires the past four years.
So what does this mean for you? If you live in an area where the district lines changed, who exactly is your Supervisor? Our Board members and staff will coordinate through this transition to serve all of the County’s constituents. In the event that, by some quirk of new lines versus old lines, an area actually has two representatives, or no representative, the supervisors will work together to coordinate and make sure all residents continue to receive fair and effective representation.
I want to sincerely thank each and every member of the ARC for their hard work on the development of their recommended map. The process of drawing population balanced maps that take into account the varied and diverse needs of every corner of this County is incredibly difficult. I also want to thank all of the members of the public who have weighed in through written comments or live at our BOS hearings. This process has been incredibly difficult, and I know we did not make everyone happy. Democracy is messy, can be controversial, and inflame tempers, but in the end, it is the best process we have.
For more information on the Sonoma County redistricting process and the tentative final map, visit https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/CAO/Policy-Grants-and-Special-Projects/2021-Redistricting/
The District One team wishes you a happy and safe holiday season and encourage you to donate your time and financial resources to our many, many service providers providing food, clothing, shelter, toys and much needed support to our struggling community residents. Be well.