This is from the book, A Tale of Two Valleys by Alan Deutschman, published in 2003. “Beyond the working-class haven of the west side came the Springs, which were once known for their natural hot-springs resorts for day-tripping city folks. Long ago the waters dried up and the area became a refuge of the lower classes: Mexican farmhands and home grown white trash. The Springs also attracted a cohort of liberal political activists and artists and other class-diving bohemians who lived in the dense woods behind a ratty strip of taco joints and bodegas.” This little book was about his romp in Sonoma and Napa Valleys while staying in the homes of some wealthy benefactors.
We moved to the Springs in 2002, so I could see this description of my new hood was, let me say, less than accurate. Our real estate agent was somewhat surprised that we were not impressed by the fashionable east side of Sonoma and had set our sights on finding a spot in the Springs.
Coming from San Francisco, I knew nothing about Sonoma Valley politics. I did not even realize the Springs was not part of the town of Sonoma. Well twenty years later, I know way too much about Sonoma Valley politics. I still love living in the Springs, but have come to realize we are sort of on our own here. Our little hood is part of Sonoma county district one and we have one county supervisor as our only voice at the county level. As district one encompasses much more densely populated areas such as parts of Santa Rosa, we are like neglected step children here in the Springs. Today we have something called the Springs Specific Plan that is supposed to reinvent this place and make it paradise on earth. Never mind that the plan grabs a little piece of land along Donald Street, that none of us ever considered part of the Springs.
Mr. Deutschman’s description of the Springs was not accurate in 2003 and it is certainly not accurate today. But, the fact remains that a lot of us live here and feel our voices are not heard by county government. There are attempts by the county, such as establishing the Springs Municipal Advisory Council (MAC) to advise our county supervisor and hopefully give us a voice in county government.
So where does that leave those of us who live in Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente? Some have said we should incorporate and become our own little city. We have one of the biggest producers of Transient Occupancy Tax in the entire county, the Sonoma Mission Inn. But, as we all know running a city government is not easy. I have been observing the little city of Sonoma for the past 20 years and know that running a small city is a pretty big, complex deal.
The other idea being seriously thrown around is that the Springs should become part of the city of Sonoma. Some people call this annexation, and some call it consolidation or a merger. But, whatever you want to call it would mean a much bigger city of Sonoma, with a lot more diversity and complexity. Well it looks like the county has some money to study this idea. But, a lot would have to happen to make this a reality. The first step would be for the city of Sonoma to put expanding the Urban Growth Boundary on the ballot for the purpose of annexing the Springs. If the city of Sonoma voters say no, that would be the end of it. There was a vote on a Springs/ City of Sonoma consolidation in 1976 and it was defeated. But, hey, that was a long time ago.
Who would start this process? LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission. Here is who they are, from the LAFCO web site:
As provided under the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Local Government Reorganization Act of 2000, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is required by the State Legislature to regulate the orderly formation and expansion of local government agencies. In carrying out its duties, LAFCO must balance orderly development with the sometimes competing State interests of discouraging urban sprawl, preserving open space and prime agricultural lands, efficiently extending government services and providing housing for persons and families of all incomes in the most efficient manner feasible. (§56001)
LAFCO has responsibility in four areas affecting local government in Sonoma County:
Many services and functions are already shared for Sonoma and Springs residents: The hospital district, fire district, shared law enforcement and the school district. But, there is more to this than just those functions and services. And the big question, would we be better off if we were part of the city of Sonoma?
Two continuing Sonoma city council members and at least one new candidate have expressed support and interest in the idea of annexation and would like to look at whether it is a financially sound and feasible idea.
At first I was pretty negative on the idea, as I like the Springs vibe way more than I like the Sonoma city vibe. I had the idea that we did not have all the rules and regulations that Sonoma city dwellers have. While we are not the bizarre place Mr. Deutschman describes in his book, we are certainly a bit more bohemian than the city of Sonoma. I was wrong about the rules, we have all the same ones as the city, and it is just that they are not strictly enforced. So in this case being ignored by the county is sort of a plus. One exception I found is that the city allows residents to have chickens and the county does not in residential areas of the Springs. So guess what, our Springs chickens are illegal.
As LAFCO has pointed out commercial property is a plus, bringing in tax revenue, while residential property is a minus, requiring tax expenditures. But, there is most certainly a balance, especially if the Sonoma Mission Inn is in the new city, and the county does not insist on some type of tax sharing agreement.
Then there is the idea that annexing the Springs will magically end any racial segregation that exists in the combined area. While creating a larger city will most certainly make the numbers higher in the diversity equation, it may or may not do anything about the distribution of diversity. I have lived in the Springs for over 20 years and walking most of the neighborhoods for exercise. What I am seeing is a gradual gentrification of most neighborhoods. The majority of homes that sell at a lower price point are remodeled and either sold quickly at a much higher price point or they become second homes. This may or may not accelerate if the Springs becomes part of the city of Sonoma.
And last, what exactly is the Springs? Many people do not feel we should all be lumped together, that El Verano is very different than Boyes Hot Springs etc. And where would the boundary be for city limits? The Springs Specific plan only includes the narrow commercial strip and not all the residential neighborhoods.
At this point I am personally leaning toward the idea that a larger city of Sonoma is desirable. Perhaps there could be flexibility in zoning and allowed uses, so the Springs does not have to be in lock step with existing city rules. If done with the right representation structure in place, I believe we would bring more voices to the table and could possibly create a better Sonoma.