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What is Sonoma Valley’s future? Survey says...

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If you think Sonoma Valley is some kind of paradise, think again. It’s an increasingly divided community, with extremes in income, education, quality of living and even life expectancy, sometimes within a few miles of one another. Such were the findings of “A Portrait of Sonoma County,” a study issued last year by the county’s Department of Health Services.

“We’re two communities, drifting apart,” said Joshua Rymer, president of the Sonoma Valley Fund board. “We’re now at a scale and size that we can manage this before it gets out of hand, and becomes unmanageable.”

Questions about the Valley’s future are the driving force behind a new online survey created by the nonprofit Sonoma Valley Fund to gauge community feedback about the direction of Sonoma.

An affiliate of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, the Sonoma Valley Fund focuses its fundraising not on one-time donations, but legacy pledges, making a sizeable allocation from an estate that goes toward specific causes to sustain the quality of life in Sonoma Valley.

But, if “A Portrait of Sonoma County" is any indication, as the Sonoma Valley becomes more and more divided, finding ways to solve its problems – even identifying its problems – becomes a challenge. That’s part of the reason the Sonoma Valley Fund launched its Community Conversations series last month, on April 27, with “Exploring the Myth That We All Live in Paradise” at the Sonoma Community Center.

The on-stage panel included former Index-Tribune editor David Bolling, as well as Oscar Chavez, assistant director of Human Services for Sonoma County. Katherine Fulton, an SVF board member and philanthropy strategist, directed their conversation and the public input from the fully engaged hall.

The “convening,” as Rymer called it, was lively and stimulating, fulfilling his goal as “a catalyst to stimulate interest, set off some light bulbs, and generate ideas for giving.” After the first Community Conversation, the organizers collected evaluation cards and comments, and launched an expanded survey online to build a sense of priorities and what issues the community is most willing to tackle.

“The forum was designed to surface the range of issues attendees were seeing about the future of Sonoma Valley,” said Fulton. “Our emerging sense is that different issues will call for different approaches. Surely further community forums may be the best approach in some areas.”

But the process of gathering public input is just beginning, according to Rymer. There may be further convenings, currently being evaluated as launching points for identifying priorities that will shape the future of our Valley.

“The population is graying and browning,” said Rymer, describing increasing proportions of both seniors and Latinos. Each has its own priorities and concerns; bringing them together into a common vision of the future is no easy task.

In the meantime the Sonoma Valley Fund is asking for public input in its online Community Conversations Launch Survey, a simple one-page questionnaire at www.surveymonkey.com/s/sonomavalleyfund.

The questionnaire asks how much respondents value such topics as: getting families involved in the community, mandating a living wage, affordable housing, sustainable water resources, opportunities for youth and many other matters.

“First we want to know what residents see as most important to address,” said Fulton. Once the survey closes, the board will gather “to analyze what we have learned and figure out the path forward.”

Over 150 people have responded so far, but more engagement is encouraged. The survey will be active until the end of the month, and the Sonoma Valley Fund will announce results later this summer.