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County greenbelt on November ballot

Sonoma County officials have long touted the region as a destination for tourists and businesses looking to relocate because of its large swathes of pastoral land and communities with unique identities.

That Sonoma County has managed to cling to an agricultural heritage while other parts of the Bay Area have developed in a way that some would call urban sprawl is no accident. Twenty years ago, Sonoma County voters passed an ordinance to ensure that the land in between the county’s cities would be free from most kinds of development.

The so-called community separators are set to expire, and supporters are asking voters to renew the zoning requirements on the Nov. 8 ballot. Measure K would extend the land use policy for another 20 years.

It faces little opposition in a county with a solid agricultural and environmental ethos, though some question the need to freeze development in certain areas for two decades at a time of a regional housing shortage.

In Petaluma, the initiative has essentially created a greenbelt that rings the city with agricultural land and open space, said Teri Shore, the North Bay’s director for the Greenbelt Alliance, the organization backing the measure. The community separator extends north from Petaluma along Highway 101 to Cotati. Another greenbelt runs from the city’s southern border to the Sonoma-Marin county line and along the Petaluma Wetlands.

“This measure protects open space and farm land. It prevents the conversion to shopping malls and housing tracts without the vote of the residents of Sonoma County,” Shore said. “It holds back sprawl for the next generation.”

She said that in other parts of the state that lack community separators, like the San Francisco Peninsula and Orange County, cities develop into one another to the extent that they lose their individual charm.

“We’ve avoided the mistakes made in other Bay Area counties that go from one city to another without any identity,” she said.

Land use decisions in Sonoma County are rarely without controversy, however. Keith Woods, the chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, said his group has yet to take a position on the measure, but he expressed personal concerns about the time frame of the proposal.

“I think the concept of avoiding sprawl is good,” he said. “Personally, I have concerns about locking up land for the next 20 years. A lot can change in 20 years.”

The Sonoma County Alliance, a coalition of business, agriculture and labor interests, has also not taken a stance, said Brian Ling, the group’s executive director. He said that his personal feeling is that the measure could impact the county’s ability to add much needed housing.

“The general principal of community separators we are in favor of,” he said. “This land use regulation hurts in the effort on the housing crisis.”

The North Bay Association of Realtors, a trade group, is officially neutral on the issue, according to the group’s director of government affairs, Daniel Sanchez. He said the Realtors are not opposed to the measure, which has in recent years been bolstered by city voters passing urban growth boundaries that compliment the county greenbelts.

“This is to a large extent a symbolic thing,” he said of the community separators. “It has been met with a shrug.”

To those looking at the land between cities as an opportunity to develop badly needed affordable housing projects, Shore said that there is plenty of room within existing city limits for infill development. In Petaluma, several projects are underway or have been approved on once blighted vacant space.

“Greenbelts did not cause the housing crisis, and building in greenbelts won’t solve the housing crisis,” Shore said.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)