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Don Bennett, who charted Petaluma’s growth, dies at 79


Don Bennett, a public relations executive who was involved in Petaluma nonprofit and political boards for 50 years and helped lead the city’s growth at a critical juncture, died on May 26 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 79.

Bennett had a passion for local government and served on the Petaluma Planning Commission and the Sonoma County Planning Commission. In the 1970s, he was the chairman of the Petaluma Growth Control Plan, the first voter-approved growth control initiative in California, that aimed to check the city’s rampant development east of Highway 101.

A skilled writer, he shared his moderately liberal views as a columnist for the Argus-Courier and edited the newspaper for the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We could be very politically aligned sometimes and also had huge differences, but we always worked it out,” said Onita Pellegrini, CEO of the chamber. “He was a very good friend.”

Born in Nebraska in 1938, Bennett became involved in journalism in high school, editing his school’s newspaper. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Navy and served on nuclear submarines.

Bennett later attended the University of Nebraska, where he was news editor of the campus radio station and served on student council. Following college, he moved to Petaluma and worked in the public relations department for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in San Francisco.

He went on to launch his own public relations firm, North Country Communications, which published the North Country Journal. He became politically active, working as district representative for two state Assembly members, Vivien Bronshvag and Michael Wornum.

Bennett ran for office himself, winning a seat on the Old Adobe School District board in 1973. In 1986, after he lost the race for Petaluma mayor, Bennett was appointed to the Petaluma Planning Commission, where he served for 12 years. He also served on the Sonoma County Planning Commission, first appointed by Supervisor Mike Kearns, and later by Supervisor David Rabbitt.

Rabbitt said that Bennett’s breadth of knowledge on land use issues was invaluable to the county. He said that Bennett was a major proponent of protecting the land in between cities as community separators.

“He was extremely well respected and full of institutional knowledge,” Rabbitt said. “His perspective of stepping back and looking at the big picture was valuable. I will miss Don for all his insight.”

Later in life, Bennett became a columnist for the Argus-Courier, writing about politics and land use from a historical perspective until just before his death. His incisive columns at turns agitated, amused and inspired members of Petaluma’s political class.

Dave King, a Petaluma city councilman, said Bennett was instrumental in helping him revive the Democratic Club of Southern Sonoma County in the 1990s. He said that Bennett’s views on key political issues were always appreciated.

“The thing about Don is he was always an interesting guy to talk to about history and politics,” King said. “He always had a very thoughtful, well informed view on all issues. Sometimes he could stir it up a bit.”

Bennett married his wife, Orienne, and the couple raised their son, Barry. Besides politics, Bennett was deeply involved in youth sports. He co-founded Petaluma Valley Little League and served on its board of directors. He also coached in the Petaluma Youth Soccer League and was on the board of directors of the local Pop Warner Football club.

Alway active in the community, Bennett served on numerous nonprofit boards, including PEP Housing, Cinnabar Theater, Salvation Army and Petaluma People Services Center. He was a longtime member of the local Kiwanis club, and served one year as its president. In 2008, he received the Petaluma Good Egg award. Bennett directed a successful campaign to pass a ballot measure to build Petaluma Valley Hospital.

Lyndi Brown, a colleague of Bennett’s at the chamber of commerce, said she learned a lot about Petaluma from him.

“He was an amazing mentor to me as chairman of the Chamber’s first visitor’s program in 1985,” she said. “He introduced me to all the key folks, and schooled me in the city’s history. Without Don, cars would still be bypassing Petaluma. His love of history influenced how we present Petaluma to the world.”

A connoisseur of fine wine and single malt scotch, Bennett also loved old movies and playing poker. As a traveler, he explored 50 countries and 49 states.

He is survived by his wife, Orienne, his son, Barry of Rollinsville, Colorado, and his brother, Bob, of Gering, Nebraska.

A memorial service will be held today at 11 a.m. at Parent-Sorensen Mortuary, 850 Keokuk St., Petaluma. Donations may be made to Hospice of Petaluma, PEP Housing or Kiwanis Foundation.