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Wide-open spaces: Rohnert Park City Councilman Jake McKenzie is among those supporting the Rural Heritage Initiative.

Green Days

Battle lines being drawn in bid to save rural heritage

By Jeremy A. Hay

AN INITIATIVE intended to protect agricultural and rural land from development will likely qualify for November's ballot--over the opposition of some of the Sonoma County's largest agricultural interests, who say it may limit the future ability of farmers to do business.

The Rural Heritage Initiative, or RHI, needs 16,058 signatures by May 22 to qualify for the ballot. Supporters, hoping to provide themselves a wide margin of safety, plan to collect 22,000 signatures, and by the weekend had collected 20,000.

Should it win in November, the RHI would require voter approval of any proposal to redesignate or increase the density of any land that the county's 1989 General Plan specifies as agricultural or rural. It would apply only to unincorporated areas, but would affect about 80 percent of the county's land, or close to 800,00 acres.

Supporters say the initiative supports General Plan policies--backed by voters over the past several years in a series of urban-growth-boundary ballot measures--that call for "city-centered growth." Without it, they say, the same technology industry-driven growth that has transformed Silicon Valley may well render Sonoma County unrecognizable 20, or even 10, years from now.

The reason for their concern is the region's booming economy. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, Sonoma County can expect a 47 percent increase in jobs over the next 20 years, along with 120,000 new residents.

"This is a rather simple idea," says John Blayney, spokesman for the initiative effort. "What's the future of this county going to be? Is it going to be Santa Clara County, or is it going to be a county that values its agricultural lands and open space?

"I think a lot of people in Sonoma County would agree that this is perhaps the biggest decision this county's ever going to face."

THE RHI IS sponsored by Citizens for Sonoma County's Future, a coalition of the Sierra Club, Sonoma County Conservation Action, Greenbelt Alliance, and Friends of the Russian River. It is based largely on a similar initiative, Measure J, adopted in 1990 by Napa County voters and considered today a huge success by environmental advocates.

But while Measure J was backed by much of Napa's agricultural industry, especially local vintners, the RHI may not enjoy the same support.

In what RHI supporters say was an unfortunate oversight, none of Sonoma County's agricultural organizations were asked to help shape the initiative. Now those organizations, which include the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and the Sonoma County Wineries Association, are opposing the measure.

"The people who are going to be most impacted by it weren't included or even consulted in the drafting of the ordinance," says Judy James, executive director of the local Farm Bureau.

James notes that the architect of Measure J, Volker Eisele, was then president of the Napa County Farm Bureau. She says, "We didn't have the opportunity here to help craft something that's really good for agriculture."

A rueful Peter Ashcroft, chair of the RHI steering committee, says James' complaints are on target. "Some people were consulted," he says, "but it's clear in retrospect--and hindsight is always 20/20--that we should have done a better job of reaching out to the agricultural community."

Ashcroft, who is chairman of the Sonoma County Sierra Club chapter, declines to say who was consulted, only that they were from local farming industries.

Jaimie Douglas, executive director of the Sonoma County Wineries Association, echoes James' anger at being excluded from the initiative process. She suggests the slight may stem from "the grape-growing and wine-producing industries being kind of singled out as not being environmentally friendly, which is absolutely not the case."

But Lynn Hamilton, former Sebastopol mayor and now director of the Town Hall Coalition, a recently formed citizens' group that has crossed swords with grape growers over vineyard expansion, argues that the wine industry should welcome the initiative.

"This is really a chance to protect our ag lands for ag use, which I think the wine [producers] and grape-growing people should be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about," Hamilton says.

Its detractors also criticize the initiative for being, as Judy James puts it, "so general and vague that it's going to cause unintended consequences for agriculture."

Among examples of those consequences James cites the possibility that a dairy farmer deciding to also produce cheese, or perhaps ice cream, might be prevented from obtaining the required use permit; or a farm family with producing vineyards might also, under the ordinance, be unable to obtain the required permits.

"There are a lot of gray areas in the initiative, such as the question of getting use permits for ag projects in the future," James says, "and we really need them to be in black and white."

Blayney says such concerns are unwarranted, because use permits are governed by specific zoning ordinances, not the General Plan. The zoning ordinances are more detailed land-use rules that are separate from the General Plan land designations and policies, although they are supposed to implement those policies.

"The only thing the ordinance would regulate is a change in the designation of land the General Plan designates as an agricultural or rural resource, or an increase in density," Blayney emphasizes. "It does nothing to change the existing zoning ordinance."

LAST FRIDAY, in a letter to Ashcroft, the Farm Bureau and the Wineries Association, joined by the Sonoma County Farmlands Group and United Wine Growers, urged a halt to the initiative effort.

The letter calls the RHI "flawed in substance and process" and says: "Only by withdrawing the initiative will it be possible for the agricultural community to join with your group . . . in pursuit of consensus regarding long-term agricultural preservation policies."

Ashcroft says the steering committee discussed the possibility of delaying the initiative process, but concluded it "would be breaking faith" with the 20,000 people who signed petitions in support of the RHI, as well as with "the hundreds of" signature gatherers.

Blayney says he hopes to continue to meet with representatives of the agricultural community to allay their fears. "We don't necessarily expect everybody to support [the initiative]," he says. "We just don't want people to misunderstand it."

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From the May 11-17, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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