Commentary: Environmental groups say yes to infill housing

For too long it’s been assumed that environmentalists and conservationists say no to all development. Things are different now.|

We are environmental nonprofits and groups who protect and enhance the land, water, climate, and biodiversity of Sonoma Valley. You may be surprised to learn that we are united in supporting a certain kind of development in Sonoma Valley: denser, taller, efficient homes and apartments in already-developed locations, especially in the city of Sonoma. This matters now because the city of Sonoma and the county of Sonoma are both updating their eight-year housing plans.

For too long it’s been assumed that environmentalists and conservationists say no to all development. Things are different now.

The planetary crisis of climate change demands that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty percent of Sonoma County’s emissions are from transportation. Sonoma Valley has far more jobs than it has housing affordable to the people who work those jobs. To reduce these emissions, people need to be able to live near where they work, shop, and go to school, so they can drive less.

Housing costs need to come down in Sonoma Valley, or else more Sonoma Valley workers will have to commute. Housing costs can come down if we build government-subsidized housing, like the larger Fetters Apartments in the Springs or the smaller Alta Madrone project on Broadway, and if we increase the overall supply of smaller, non-subsidized, “missing middle” homes, in already-developed areas.

The biodiversity crisis, which is annihilating species globally and right here in Sonoma Valley, is driven largely by land development of natural areas and farmland. We can protect wild animals and native plant communities if we put remaining open space off-limits, and instead restrict development to the places we’ve already wired, piped and paved. Within these areas, we need to build what’s called “infill,” taller and denser. But that’s a worthy trade-off, since there are great models for attractive, green, walkable, compact neighborhoods

Luckily, the requirements for new modest-sized homes and apartments simply demolish many old-school environmental arguments against development, as long as they are placed in already-developed locations. These newer homes have mandated water-efficient landscaping. Their appliances are vastly more efficient with water and energy than in homes built even 10 years ago. They are required to be built solar-ready or solar-powered. They are built to resist embers. Increasingly, they are electric-only. It isn’t credible anymore to oppose modest-size, infill housing, especially multi-unit apartments, on the basis of water scarcity. New homes save water and energy and are safer compared to the older single-family homes common today in Sonoma Valley.

Another consideration: we cannot operate the nonprofits that conserve and restore land in Sonoma Valley if our staff can’t afford to live here. Currently, the cost of housing is often a deal-breaker when we interview candidates, and often a reason when staff leave.

Our organizations are members of Sonoma Valley Collaborative. We’ve banded together with many other groups and organizations to create denser, infill, affordable housing in Sonoma Valley, because that is the most pressing issue across the Valley’s many interest groups, and we can’t fix it alone.

We ask decision-makers at the city of Sonoma and the county of Sonoma to make sure that their Housing Elements, now being updated, actively create new affordable infill homes, protect renters, and preserve existing affordable housing units. We ask residents to show your care for Sonoma Valley’s land, water, climate, and biodiversity by telling your representatives that housing in Sonoma Valley needs a transformation.

Richard Dale, Executive Director, Sonoma Ecology Center; Sarah Cardona, Deputy Director, Greenbelt Alliance; Tom Conlon, Executive Committee, Sierra Club Sonoma Group.

Sonoma Valley Collaborative is a forum of community leaders from a wide range of sectors across Sonoma Valley, finding common-ground solutions and taking action to address the community’s biggest challenges. Learn more about their work on housing at

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