Notes from Glen Ellen: How locals fought off a freeway to keep Highway 12 rural and ‘scenic’

A recent announcement about the replacement of two very old bridges on Highway 12 ‒ the Hooker Creek Bridge built circa 1901 at Madrone and Cavedale, and the Sonoma Creek Bridge in Kenwood ‒ brings to mind a highway story from the 1970s. The story is not commonly known, and should be remembered as an example of how locals can make a difference on the powers that be.

In the early 1970s, there was a big push to modernize California roads, changing dusty two-lane county roads into freeways and overpasses. (Think: the elevated Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco that hugged the beautiful bay coast, obliterating views of Treasure Island and the East Bay, until sounder minds removed it.)

At that time, Highway 12 meandered from Sonoma to Santa Rosa through walnut orchards, past cattle pastures, ranches and vineyards owned by the same families for decades, with views of Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf Ridge. Traffic was light, and the landscapes were peaceful and serene.

Then, the California Department of Transportation proposed a four-lane highway hurtling up the center of Sonoma Valley, with off-ramps and, yes, cloverleaf exchanges. An off-ramp was designed for where Dunbar School is now. Just imagine cloverleaf exchanges at Pythian Road, Melita Road or Mission Boulevard. Soon, there could be strip malls, gas stations and fast-food restaurants along that route where once there was farmland.

The state Department of Transportation held a public hearing of the plans in the multipurpose room at Dunbar School revealing maps and designs for the freeway they envisioned driving up the spine of the Valley from Sonoma to Santa Rosa.

Don’t underestimate the power of local politics. Soon a Citizens Committee to Save Highway 12 was formed. They gathered to oppose the highway plan and offered an alternative. Among this group were Stephen and Justine Ashton of Henno Road in Glen Ellen, and Victor Conforti, a prominent architect in Sonoma.

The committee argued that the increased traffic would bring pollution to the Valley, destroy the orchards and farmlands that are the heart of the region, and obliterate the old agricultural families that line the Valley floor.

In their effort to save the Valley, they approached then-County Supervisor Ig Vella in his Sonoma living room. First District Supervisor Vella came from a long line of farmers and cheese makers and was on board immediately. A plan was hatched. Vella appointed Stephen Ashton to the Sonoma County Transportation Committee which was made up of various citizens who were concerned about the impact of growth.

Conforti and Ashton came up with an alternative design. Their plan involved maintaining Highway 12 as a two-lane road but with the addition of turn lanes. The simple addition of turn lanes would allow through-traffic without inhibiting cross traffic, and without building sprawling and disruptive on and off ramps.

The alternative design was adopted by the state and turn lanes instituted. Further, the state designated Highway 12 as a “California Scenic Highway,” one of the first. A “Scenic Highway” is a scenic corridor protection program that “limits development, outdoor advertising and earthmoving.”

Thanks to this hearty band of citizens in 1970s, Highway 12 remains rural and distinctive. As we used to say, “power to the people”.

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