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News: 06/15/2017

How can we ‘sustain’ Sonoma?

Program seeks answers to thorny community problems

Hardly a week goes by that some issue doesn’t crop up over land use decisions. A proposed new winery or tasting room, affordable housing, homeless shelters, marijuana dispensaries, these are just some of the projects that can raise hackles and set off a round of public head-butting. Looking to take a more positive stance to settling long simmering issues, the Sonoma Ecology Center is teaming up with the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce, La Luz, and the county-sponsored Health Action network to work on collaborative solutions.

“This is a collective impact program,” La Luz Director Juan Hernandez said. “We are going to initiate efforts in Sonoma Valley with businesses and non-profits to get everybody rolling in the same direction.

“This is shift of mindset, a systemic view of what’s possible in Sonoma Valley if we all have our ducks in a row,” Hernandez continued. “We will pull people together under an umbrella – the Chamber and the Ecology Center, both a big part of who we are in Sonoma Valley. When we talk about housing and some of the bigger pictures, ecology will be a part of that conversation. A lot of times it is not part of that conversation.”

Caitlin Cornwall is a biologist and research manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center. She pointed to a number of examples of chronic, complex issues that are facing the community “that don’t seem to be getting solved with the usual array of tools.”

“We have a lot of disagreement right now about the role of any number of things,” Cornwall said. “Second homeowners, tourism, visitors, traffic, housing, cannabis. All these pressures push us to ask what we want to be when we grow up. That’s the conversation Sustainable Sonoma is designed to foster.”

Desired goals for most residents seem to be protecting the valley’s natural beauty, keep agriculture thriving, and have a healthy economy, along with reasonable housing and an equitable society, Cornwall noted.

There is a sense of urgency about getting Sustainable Sonoma underway.

Cornwall pointed out that there is a growing disparity of equity, that locally owned businesses are finding it very hard to operate here. “We have identity issues in our community, tensions over whether we are a destination for visitors or do we have our own identity. There is serious groundwater decline, and we keep throwing away the amazing natural legacy of Sonoma Valley land and waters. It is death by a thousand cuts. We are loving it to death.”

Cornwall sees a lot of decisions coming down the pike, “Urban boundaries, groundwater agencies, all asking what do we want to be, what path do we want to take. We need to have a conversation, not a political argument, built on sectors knowing where each other is coming from.”

Through its new website, the group is seeking information from any groups who already have projects underway and to inform the public on the next steps coming up.

What, exactly, is to be done lies in the future.

“We are aware that the description sounds a little fuzzy right now,” Cornwall added. “That’s because all the interest groups need to have a stake in building it. The process needs to work for all the different interest groups. It can’t be predetermined.”

The collaborating will get underway in the fall with an initial convocation of all interested parties and a later, larger public event to get the process going.

Kim Jones at the Ecology Center is the Sustainable Sonoma coordinator. She cited a recent report by Sonoma Valley Fund, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” that said “the lack of adequate and affordable housing, increasing poverty, the rapid rise of our senior population and the environmental pressures created by population growth” could overwhelm our existing network of nonprofits.

And while the Ecology Center is hosting an office for the group now, eventually it will become a stand-alone entity with offices, funding and staff of its own, Jones said. “It will belong to the whole community, not any particular organization. Over time, the founding partners will become just a few of the many interests at the table.”

You can learn more about this program and subscribe to the Sustainable Sonoma newsletter at


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