Sonoma’s choice: community or cash cow

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.

4 thoughts on “Sonoma’s choice: community or cash cow

  1. Well Larry, instead of the Planning Director, the Planning Commission, and the City Council taking the much needed position of “the buck stops here”, it appears like they have coveted the position of “the buck stops in their pockets”!

  2. Well, judging from the, sometimes incredibly rude, push-back I´ve received on social media in recent years when I have advocated stricter development rules and encouraging small town growth parameters limiting commercial growth, I would say that many, many more people are for the cash cow approach than I would have imagined… Even some old Sonomans, which I find surprising. And disheartening.

  3. I think at this stage of the game…. 2017 Sonoma USA. It is just a matter of balance so that things don’t get worse. 28 wine tasting rooms on our plaza makes Sonoma a little bit more like the magic Kingdom at Disney land for adults. Tourist destination spot for people worldwide. Like Aspen or Tiburon the local workers cannot afford Sonoma anymore and this is more and more the case. I think locals that are moving, and I know three couple in the last year who have moved, are growing tired of what is happening… I bought a house 16 years ago north of Truckee in a town population 400. I enjoy that town more and more as Sonoma goes sour with cash cow mentality. We are at a cross roads and perhaps the new shake up on Planning Commission last night could lead to a new direction of community. I don’t understand the politics going on but I do suspect there is an agenda of some sort in the works by our current city council and our mayor. I just hope it is geared towards community and not cash cow sell out our town to more hotels….. I am praying and I am traveling north more and more to escape what use to be small town charm for tiny town charm….

    1. The financial forces at play are powerful, and wealthy developers have the resources to intimidate, overwhelm, and ultimately bury opponents. We are experiencing a surge of land-rush commercialization comparable to the housing boom of the 90s. Combine that with the expiration of the Urgan Growth Boundary in 2020 (unless renewed) and the stage is set for tourism-based growth that can make the past 20 years look modest. The only refuge is local government, and the nature of its commitment to the Valley and City’s sense-of-place. The latter is subject to pandering and cynical manipulation; it’s not easy to keep one’s eye on the ball. Yes, we are at a cross-roads; take a look at Walnut Creek to see the road more traveled, rather than less.

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