Lets support the General Plan: Downtown survives on tourists, lifestyle retailers

By Laney Thornton


As a 30-plus-year Sonoma property owner, and as a board member of Greenbelt Alliance, I strongly oppose Measure B. For the past 20 years, Greenbelt Alliance has worked to put teeth into the General Plans of Sonoma County cities by helping local communities pass Urban Growth Boundaries around themselves to prohibit haphazard, non-conforming development outside city limits – what we call suburban sprawl.

This highly-successful campaign by Greenbelt Alliance and others has been overwhelmingly approved by voters in each of the nine towns and incorporated cities in Sonoma County.

In fact, Sonoma is the only example of democratically-initiated, “European style,” county-wide zoning to be found anywhere in the country. It is something that county residents have good reason to feel proud of.

In almost all of America, a county land use plan had only been a suggestion: it was something that was constantly subject to any good sales pitch necessary to make an exemption and therefore set a precedent for housing tracks that would sprout up in the middle of a farm belt, or a shopping center at a rural intersection.

The Urban Growth Boundary Campaign was an effort to say to developers that the county plan will be followed and “smart growth” will occur only in urban cores and downtown business districts where critical masses of housing, retail, jobs and transportation can reinforce each other in a virtuous cycle.

The proponents of “Yes on B” would have it both ways. They want to say, “You can’t build it out there AND you can’t build it in here.” That is simply being an “environmental bully” and it is not a smart way to manage growth. Urban Growth Boundaries themselves are not permanent; they have to be re-drawn by voters and politicians. Ultimately, UGBs are vulnerable if they do not work as envisioned. Trust me, if Measure B passes, hotels will be built “out there” eventually, and more traffic will result as drivers drive further to get “in here.” A “yes” vote on Measure B will create urban sprawl.

Urban areas need constant reinvestment, or they die. That is why so many downtown merchants, business owners and the mayor of Sonoma are adamantly opposed to Measure B. It will hurt local businesses and erode the Plaza as the main business hub of Sonoma.

I remember the old days when downtown Sonoma was where everyone went to shop, but outlying shopping centers killed the bread-and-butter trade in the core, as it always does. Now the downtown has to survive on tourists and lifestyle retailers that are seasonal/weekend driven and it is tough going for many. Anyone who has the courage to invest in our downtown should be encouraged – it ain’t easy money to make a go of it.

If you want a vibrant downtown that is exciting to go to, then do not make it even harder to invest in downtown Sonoma than it already is. The urban lots in Sonoma are small, and so anything built in Sonoma will automatically be small as a result.

We have a General Plan. It was approved by the people. Let’s respect it and let’s be proud of it. And let’s get on with the business of making Sonoma an exciting, special and welcoming town.

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  Laney Thornton is a Sonoma property owner and a Greenbelt Alliance board member.