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Coastal Commission’s preposterous antics go to court, and taxpayers foot the bill

Steve Lopez, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

It was almost like old times.

Everywhere I looked Tuesday in a downtown San Diego courthouse, I saw a former California Coastal commissioner whose conduct is under scrutiny.

Former Commissioners Wendy Mitchell, Martha McClure and Steve Kinsey were all there, with current Commissioners Erik Howell and Mark Vargas expected to join the party soon.

The reason for the reunion is that they’re all being sued. A group called Spotlight on Coastal Corruption accuses the five commissioners of hundreds of violations of rules involving private communications with parties engaged in project applications before the commission.

So it felt as if it were 2015 all over again — the year when crowds of protesters turned out to monthly Coastal Commission showdowns that played like a traveling circus.

Read more at http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-coastal-20180228-story.html

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Fire ecology’s lessons for a more resilient future

Leilani Clark, CIVIL EATS

“Bigger homes, closer together is a recipe for more fuel on the landscape,” says Gregory L. Simon, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado and author of Flame and Fortune in the American West. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t be building homes in areas of high fire risk at all. It’s not a matter of building fire-safe construction or zoning in certain ways. Simply because of the loss of life involved and the risk to first responders.

A few times a year, Edward Willie tends to the last remaining dogbane patch in Sonoma County. Situated on a three-acre preserve bordering Highway 101 in northern Santa Rosa, the patch is estimated to be centuries old and once spanned a five-mile radius. Neighboring tribes—mainly Pomo and Wapo—cultivated the fibrous, stalky native plants to make cordage for hunting and fishing nets and other tools.

In October, the Tubbs Fire burned hot and fast through the preserve on its way to hopping the six-lane highway, leaving behind a scorched landscape of Himalayan blackberry roots and the black skeletons of wild plum trees and coyote bush. Yet, for the most part, the dogbane survived. In some formerly vegetation-choked areas of the preserve, the spindly plants are all that remain.

“The dogbane needs fire—that’s what makes it grow tall and strong,” says Willie, a native Pomo, Walaeki, and Wintu teacher and cofounder of the Buckeye Gathering, an annual nature-based, paleo-technology meeting in Northern California. Researchers have found that dogbane sprouts quickly after fire and can become more abundant. Burning actually stimulates new, straight growth.

Less than a mile away from the preserve, block after block of ruined homes, businesses, and cars stand as a reminder of the conflagration that wreaked havoc across three Northern California counties. Despite the scope of the tragedy, Willie sees regeneration and even radical hope in the region’s fire ecology.

“It’s a happy [dogbane] patch now,” he says, as he demonstrates how to peel the taut fibers from the plant’s stalk. “It’s filled with life. New sprouts are already coming up. It’s a California plant, a fire plant. It was made to survive this.”

There is no silver lining to a fire like those that struck Sonoma and Napa counties in October, or the still-burning Thomas Fire in Southern California, which has burned 281,900 acres to become the largest California wildfire in modern recorded history. But for people like Willie and Erik Ohlsen, an ecological designer and director of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, the North Bay fires are a wake-up call, a chance to proactively address the way the plants and animals of Northern California, and most of the Golden State, have co-evolved with fire—and to rebuild these communities with fire in mind.

Others go further, saying that poor planning and land management practices turned a natural feature of chaparral landscapes into a catastrophic force, leaving in its wake $3 billion in estimated damages. The city of Santa Rosa alone has already blown through $5 million from their general fund to fight the fires and the massive recovery effort has just begun.

Read more at: Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future | Civil Eats

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A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem

Posted October 31, 2017, by THE CALIFORNIA CHAPARRAL INSTITUTE BLOG

Many in the fire science community are disappointed by the recent reporting in High Country News (HCN) on the tragic fires in northern California (Shrub-choked wildlands played a role in California fires, HCN 10/24/2017).

Portraying the ecology of the region as “choked” by native shrublands not only demonizes California’s richly biodiverse, characteristic habitat, the chaparral, but fails to come close to explaining why and how the fires occurred. Little effort was made in the article to help readers understand the situation. Instead, the article simply repeated hackneyed phrases over-used to describe fires in the western US.

Every fire is different. Large, high-intensity wildfires have long been a natural feature of these chaparral landscapes. What has changed is that we have put people in harm’s way.

A quick overview on Google Earth of what burned in the devastating Tubbs Fire would have revealed that it was not “shrub-choked wildlands,” but rather a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed.
http://google.org/crisismap/google.com/2017-tubbs-fire

Tubbs veg area south no fire

“Shrub-choked wildlands?” The area burned in the Tubbs Fire was actually a complex patchwork of non-native grasslands, oak woodland, conifers, chaparral, and unfortunately, a lot of homes intermixed. Most of this area shown above burned within the southern portion of the Tubbs Fire, including the neighborhood of Coffey Park (in the lower left hand corner).

Tubbs distance with arrow

The distance of the devastated neighborhood of Coffey Park (tip of arrow) was approximately 1.6 miles from any significant amounts of wildland vegetation (beginning of arrow). Brown/amber colored areas under arrow indicate non-native grasslands burned during the Tubbs Fire.

Blaming nature and past efforts by firefighters to save lives and property through fire suppression ignores the actual problem – poorly planned communities in high fire risk areas.

Ironically, the article quotes a source that admits large fires have occurred before, but the source goes on to ignore the full history to support his contention that the recent fires were unusual, a classic logical fallacy. Yes, the article reads, there were large fires in the past (when we were suppressing fires), but the recent fires are different because we have been suppressing fires.

Memories are short. Despite claims to the contrary, wildland fires along California’s west coast and inland valleys have not changed much since the 1964 Hanly Fire, a blaze which burned nearly the same territory as the Tubbs Fire but was even larger. What has changed is human demography.

Read more at: A Plea to Journalists – Wildfires in California: please investigate poor land planning rather than denigrating the region’s iconic, native ecosystem | The California Chaparral Institute Blog

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Tubbs fire revives memory of a blaze that now haunts Santa Rosa 

Gaye LeBaron, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Fifty years later, I ask[ed] the readers to pause and consider that it was almost all-open land that the fire burned through on its way to the bulldozered breaks and wind change on the Chanate hill.

Three years ago, I wrote one of those anniversary pieces that columnists love so dearly. It marked 50 years since two devastating wildfires raged through Sonoma County at the same time, threatening both Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.

The Hanly fire and the Nunn’s Canyon fire of late September 1964 were tagged in our files as the most devastating in the county’s history. The column revisited the Hanly fire and was a bit preachy in places, suggesting (as columnists do — relentlessly) that there were lessons that week might have taught us. But didn’t.

It all began early on Sept. 19, a Saturday morning, when a deer hunter dropped a cigarette on a wooded slope below Highway 29 as it winds up Mt. St. Helena from the upper Napa Valley. By 10:15 a.m., flames were seen behind Hanly’s tavern, an old, familiar stopping place on the right side of the narrow road.

The new fire was moving fast down the hill toward Calistoga, growing as it traveled.Through the weekend into the Monday that followed, firefighters and volunteers armed with garden hoses and wet gunnysacks battled to save the up-valley town, holding the damage to about 40 homes on the northeastern edge. When the winds died down on Monday morning, Calistoga gave a collective sigh of relief that echoed over the surrounding hills and valleys.

All too soon.

On Monday night, the winds returned and the fire moved west with breathtaking speed. It created its own wind as it moved at 40 mph along Porter Creek and Mark West Springs roads into Sonoma County, burning homes along Mark West Springs and Riebli roads. It roared across Wikiup and Parker Hill Road, and — within what seemed like minutes — appeared along the ridge of Montecito Heights. Startled Santa Rosans watched from the streets below.

It moved down into Rincon Valley, advanced to Parker Hill and the old Fountaingrove Ranch and headed straight for the County Hospital on Chanate. That’s where a quick-thinking fire marshal from the Santa Rosa department, who was in charge because the chief was out of town, decided he would stop it. Giving the surprising order to delay loading the very sick and very old occupants of the hospital into waiting buses, Mike Turnick commandeered a bulldozer from its operator and, using skills he had learned years before with a lumber company, cut a fire break north of the hospital, stationed fire engines along the length of it and then turned his dozer up Parker Hill and cut another break.

Read more at: Gaye LeBaron: Tubbs fire revives memory of a blaze that now haunts Santa Rosa | The Press Democrat –

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

El Diablo in Wine Country

Mike Davis, Blog, LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

In 1942 Alfred Hitchcock recruited the author of Our Town, Thornton Wilder, to write the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, an innocence-versus-evil thriller set in an ‘idyllic American town’. After considering various candidates, Hitchcock and Wilder selected Santa Rosa, a picturesque agricultural community of 13,000 people, 55 miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. The following year, Santa Rosa was introduced to millions of filmgoers in a series of establishing shots that began with aerial views of its pretty countryside and ‘all-American’ downtown. Wartime restrictions had precluded set-building and the exterior locations were all real, but it was difficult to believe that sunny Santa Rosa hadn’t been confected by Norman Rockwell on a Hollywood back lot.

Seventy-five years later, we contemplate another aerial view, this time of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighbourhood. The scene, a thousand homes incinerated to their foundations, resembles the apocalypse Kim Jong-un keeps promising to bring to America. Especially shocking to Californians, these were not homes in the combustible foothills or mountains where fire danger traditionally lurks, but on the plain, next to a freeway, schools, fast-food outlets – the kind of landscape where most of us live. Altogether, in one terrible night, Santa Rosa (population 165,000) lost more than 2800 homes and businesses to what is officially known as the Tubbs Fire. But it’s premature to cite losses or add up body counts since, as I write, twenty fires still writhe across the Wine Country, and an army of exhausted firefighters fearfully awaits the return of the Diablo winds.

Although the explosive development of this firestorm complex caught county and municipal officials off guard, fire alarms had been going off for months. Two years ago, at the height of California’s worst drought in five hundred years, the Valley Fire, ignited by faulty wiring in a hot tub, burned 76,000 acres and destroyed 1350 homes in Lake, northern Sonoma, and Napa counties. Last winter’s record precipitation, meanwhile, did not so much bust the drought as prepare its second and more dangerous reincarnation. The spring’s unforgettable profusion of wildflowers and verdant grasses was punctually followed by a scorching summer that culminated in September with pavement-melting temperatures of 41ºC in San Francisco and 43ºC on the coast at Santa Cruz. Luxuriant green vegetation quickly turned into parched brown fire-starter.

Read more at: El Diablo in Wine Country « LRB blog

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Santa Rosa may boost housing densities in exchange for affordable units

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Finley Community Center Auditorium, 2060 W. College Ave, Santa Rosa

How much additional housing can — or should — your Santa Rosa neighborhood be asked to absorb?

The city is seeking feedback from the public Monday on its plan to dramatically increase housing densities throughout the city, especially downtown and near its two train stations.

The plan calls for increasing incentives known as density bonuses for developers that could allow up to 100 percent more housing units on a particular property than regular zoning would allow.

“This is an important tool in our tool chest to address the housing crisis,” said David Guhin, director of planning and economic development. “It’s not going to solve all of the issues, but it’s an important one.”

Currently, developers who build affordable units in their projects can be granted the right to build up to 35 percent more units than normal.

Read more at: Santa Rosa may boost housing densities in exchange for affordable units | The Press Democrat –

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Sonoma County’s new crossroads for legal weed

Joe Mathews, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

Adjust your California maps: The dot marking Santa Rosa needs to be bigger.

Dramatic changes in housing, demography, and criminal justice are altering the Golden State’s geography, and no place in California stands to benefit more than Santa Rosa.

The Sonoma County seat seems poised to become the most successful example of a certain type of urbanism – the rapidly growing midsize city that serves as a crossroads between major regions. The city’s current motto – “Out There. In the Middle of Everything” – encapsulates the new and paradoxical centrality of edge cities, from Fairfield and Santa Clarita to Riverside and Escondido.

“We’re on the move and we’re interested in growing,” says Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs of her town.

The fifth largest city in the Bay Area, Santa Rosa, population 175,000, plays many roles. It’s the northern spillover area for people and businesses seeking refuge from the higher costs of communities closer-in. The city now boasts 88,000 jobs, its highest employment level ever.

And by dint of geography and strategy, the city is emerging as California’s weed crossroads – or, in more official language, the “farm-to-market” center for medical and recreational marijuana, connecting the North State’s cannabis growers with the retailers and consumers of the Bay Area and points south.

While other California cities have decided to limit the marijuana industry, Santa Rosa has rapidly issued permits for cannabis operations, creating a run on warehouse space. What the city wants is higher-wage professional jobs – in sales, finance, distribution or lab testing – that the newly legal industry will require.

Read more at: Sonoma County’s new crossroads for legal weed | The Sacramento Bee

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A growing Sonoma bursts at its seams

Patrick Hoge, SAN FRANCISCO MAGAZINE

Wine tourism: booming. Mass transit: zooming. Big cannabis: looming. For a once-quiet agricultural region, Sonoma is suddenly an economic engine. And not everybody’s loving the noise.

Liza Hinman lives in two Sonoma County worlds on the same continuum. In one, she is cofounder and chef of the Spinster Sisters, a hip, fun, homey restaurant bringing life and house-made granola parfaits to a formerly run-down part of Santa Rosa. She’s part of a vanguard of entrepreneurial Sonomans who are catering to both locals and tourists through the unifying power of good eating, good drinking, and smartly designed community spaces. In the other world, Hinman, as a mother of three and the wife of a Sonoma native, is unsettled by the changes that have overtaken her hometown of Healdsburg, a once-dilapidated agricultural town of almost 12,000 with a quaint central plaza that has utterly transformed in the last 15 years into a crowded, swanky destination for affluent out-of-towners and second-home owners.

In one world, increased tourism and a well-earned Michelin recommendation are boons for Hinman, a rosy-cheeked, smock-wearing 40-year-old with a broad smile and a gifted touch with locally grown foods. In the other, she finds herself conflicted, avoiding Healdsburg’s downtown of pricey restaurants, clothing stores, and art galleries because of traffic and lack of parking, and shaking her head at the area’s 30—30!—wine tasting rooms. “It’s the ad nauseam conversation that we all have as more and more tourists and Bay Area people discover us,” Hinman says, proffering some of her signature deviled eggs. An East Coast transplant who got her professional start studying and cooking in San Francisco, Hinman knows that it wasn’t long ago that numerous businesses in downtown Healdsburg were shuttered. And she appreciates the tax revenue that supports city services. “It’s our lifeblood here,” she says. “But there has to be a way to find balance, to have a vibrant community for locals and services for tourists.”

Hinman’s contrasting sentiments are echoed across Sonoma County these days, as moneyed visitors from around the world and urban refugees flood into the North Bay in search of the good life. Tourism spending is soaring; hotel and winery development is widespread; and housing prices are climbing fast and approaching an all-time high—all factors that have led to a growing disquiet among longtime valley dwellers. Still a vast Eden of vineyards, restaurants, and resorts, Sonoma maintains a natural beauty and a relatively affordable cost of living that have made it a release valve for the over-pressurized Bay Area. But this restfulness has been disturbed by new strains of anxiety that Sonoma’s laid-back feel, small-town charms, and country roads are being trammeled by too many outsiders with too much cash.

Read more at: San Francisco Magazine | Modern Luxury | A Growing Sonoma Bursts at its Seams

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Skyhawk air conditioners, new homes, overwhelm electrical grid

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A normally quiet east Santa Rosa street has been turned into a noisy power station to meet the growing power demand by large, air-conditioned homes and new development that threatened to overwhelm the area’s power grid.

Pacific Gas and & Electric set up a series of mobile power generators on Great Heron Drive in the Skyhawk neighborhood last week after power went out to 109 customers in the area Aug. 31, PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

Worried by a forecast that called for triple-digit temperatures over the Labor Day weekend, the utility wanted to make sure it could keep the lights and air conditioners on in the area, she said. The mercury ended up hitting a new record of 110 degrees in Santa Rosa last Saturday.

The neighborhood of mostly larger single-family homes built in the 1980s and 1990s had an undersized electric infrastructure that was stressed when people turned on their central air conditioners.

Read more at: PG&E installs temporary substation on Santa Rosa street | The Press Democrat –

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Density helps new homes be more affordable

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A long-planned Roseland housing community designed with affordable prices in mind is moving forward in a big way, with construction poised to ramp up over the next month or so and the first crop of residents possibly moving in early next year.

At the Paseo Vista subdivision on Dutton Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa, houses in the first phase will start at $390,000 — a far cry below Sonoma County’s latest median home price of $644,000. The project keeps prices low through dense development and by having key sections of the homes built at a factory in Riverside before being shipped north for assembly in place by construction crews.

The 12.2-acre site has for about two years hosted three model homes advertising the property’s future potential. As final subdivision maps are recorded next week — they were previously approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in August — the developers expect houses to arrive in mid-October, putting the community on track to welcome its first residents sometime after the first of the year.

The project is planned to include 122 single-family townhouses for sale and 15 triplexes, each of which will include a studio, a one-bedroom and a two-bedroom apartment for rent, the developers said. Among the 45 rental apartments, 32 units will be reserved for low income and very low income households, according to county officials.

Read more at: Santa Rosa developers moving forward on Roseland subdivision where homes start at $390,000 | The Press Democrat –