Recently one of our county supervisors asked me for a definition of our “rural character.” The first thing that came to mind was the old movie character George “Gabby” Hays, with his floppy hat and britches who uttered such phrases as “that durn persnickety female” and “yer durn tootin’” while keeping Roy Rogers, Randolph Scott or John Wayne company on the trail. He was one of Hollywood’s greatest rural characters. The stars he rode beside were also bigger than life rural characters in my mind and to this day they still represent the wild west and wide open spaces. They would ride beside ya and tell ya how things were and how they might be.
I quickly realized that that was what the supervisor had in mind. Our county supervisors want to know how things are and what they might be like in the future. Our General Plan policies shape that future. There are zoning code standards, design review, use permit conditions to meet, industry practices, and monitoring and enforcement. These policies were established to address the preservation of our rural character, but the pressure is on.
At the recent Permit and Resource Management Department public workshop on winery events, a definition of rural character was used as a focal point of the General Plan policies regarding agriculturally zoned land. The County’s definition of rural character means “low density/intensity, open agrarian landscape, quiet, with low traffic volumes.” Sounds good, doesn’t it?
The current building of the Sugarloaf Custom Crush Winery across from Oakmont will put a large building along Highway 12, our two-lane highway that already is seeing major traffic increases. Additional wineries along Highway 12 will also require industrial-style buildings for processing. As mentioned above, there will be design review, but since the set-back for our Scenic Highway designation is only 400 feet, buildings can reach industrial heights and still be approved. Because we have no minimum parcel size for a winery, we may have many small wineries along Highway 12. This is a concern for the “low density/intensity” part of the definition of rural character and its preservation. Since there are 59,770 acres of grapes in Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley technically still has an open agrarian landscape. But with areas of concentrated wineries and intense grape growing in Sonoma Valley and the Healdsburg/Dry Creek Area, we lose not only the open agrarian landscape that Petaluma and other County areas still enjoy, but we also lose the quiet and the low traffic volumes. With each permitted winery and tasting room along our rural roads and highways, we are losing our rural character.
So I’m back to mulling over a definition of rural character and how to protect it. I took a look at Napa County’s General Plan and theirs reads much differently than ours. Their General Plan “protects agriculture and agricultural, watershed, and open space lands by maintaining 40- and 160-acre minimum parcel sizes, limiting uses allowed in agricultural areas, and designating agriculture as our primary land use.” This means that they have limited winery growth and prohibited certain uses of ag land for promotional events. Their plan also contains policies for “preserving the County’s irreplaceable biodiversity, protecting significant natural resources and water resources.” Folks on the other side of the mountains have also been looking at the impacts of traffic and tourism to Napa County and its dwindling rural character since their economy is driven by the wine industry. Napa Vision 2050 is sponsoring a forum on Friday, April 1, in Napa called “Exploring the Tourism-Based Economy.” They have invited three experts to provide a framework to analyze the benefits and costs of a tourism-driven economy. Dr. Samuel Mendlinger of Boston University will address the social impacts, Eben Fodor of Fodor & Associates in Oregon will speak on the fiscal impacts, and Susan Handy, Ph.D. will discuss the environmental and traffic impacts. You can register online at www.napavision2050.org/forum.php, or on April 1 at 8 a.m. at the door. The program starts at 8:30 a.m. with an optional lunch at 1 p.m.
Sonoma Valley’s true rural character can still be seen in the areas around our cities that provide open spaces and quiet vistas. The trees that line the highway, and the open meadows that remain remind us that rural character is a valuable resource. Folks can buy wine anywhere. They come here to see and enjoy our rural character. And if they are lucky, they will see one of our very own rural characters out riding on a tractor or rustling up horses. We want to expand community separators, have better policies regarding industry practices, and work to protect rural character. Valley of the Moon Alliance’s next General Meeting will be April 20, 7 p.m. at the Kenwood Depot. We are looking for a few rural characters to join us!