Sonoma Valley’s close proximity to eight-million people is a physical reality. That our valley happens to be exceptionally beautiful, contains historic and charming villages, and offers some of the finest agricultural land and growing conditions in the world is also true. Yet, combine these factors with the spectacular wealth of the one-percent, and it makes our community highly vulnerable to exploitation. We face a choice: will we remain a community or be sacrificed as a cash cow?
It’s our choice because as a democratic community we’re able to choose our elected leaders and with them, craft our own rules. The Valley and small towns we enjoy today are not simply the happenstance of chance, but of rules and planning. From Mariano Vallejo on down, we enjoy the legacy of leaders in our community who looked ahead to the future, but also appreciated the lessons of the past. It’s true that bad decisions have sometimes been made, yet experiencing the bad effects of poor decisions is often how we’ve learned to do things right.
During one term as Mayor of Sonoma in 2005, I had the welcome opportunity to visit Sonoma’s sister city in Tuscany, Greve in Chianti. Greve, like Sonoma, is a charming old village, in fact far older than Sonoma; Medieval buildings border its town plaza, including a church originally built 1,000 years ago. The surrounding countryside is filled with vineyards and wineries, some of which have been in families for many hundreds of years. Scattered among hills planted with grapes and olive groves are homes and winery buildings built of local stone with terra cotta barrel-tile roofs; they blend into the Tuscan landscape seamlessly.
The Mayor of Greve at that time, Paolo Saturnini cordially invited me and my wife to dinner with a small group. I speak no Italian, and he no English, but his assistant was fluent in both and acted as translator. Between altogether too many courses of good food, I asked Paolo, “What has prevented the building of inappropriately large or different looking structures?” His assistant translated, but he looked at me quizzically, and then spoke. “He does not understand your question,” replied his assistant. I asked it again, more simply, “Why hasn’t someone built a winery that does not use stone and terra cotta barrel tiles?” He again looked puzzled and responded. “He asks, ‘Why’,” said his assistant, “‘would anyone do that?'” Violating his community’s “sense of place” was simply unthinkable to him, and his response highlighted the difference between ambition and greed.
America, however, is not Italy and Sonoma is not Greve; here wealth and individual initiative frequently overwhelm history and culture. For this reason local planning is vitally important and why we must depend upon policies and regulations that insure our “sense of place” is not violated, rules that seem unnecessary in Greve.
The choices our community makes are more important than ever. Once a physical transformation takes place, its imprint lasts for many generations. If such changes reflect the nature of who we are and what our local culture historically has been – local, small-scale, modest, respectful of past values, generous and not ego-driven – our community will thrive and living here will remain exceptional.
If, however, we succumb to the greed of profit-over-people and allow our valley to be treated as a mere cash-cow, community will be lost.