Editorial: The parable of the importunate Sonoman

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“Each man is afraid of his neighbor’s disapproval,” wrote Mark Twain. “A thing which, to the general run of the human race, is more dreaded than wolves and death.”

Out of that trio, the “Huck Finn” author would have found the wolf pack runs a distant third when it comes to fears in Sonoma, where neighborly disapproval is as common as $16 merlot and polo shirts on Sundays.

While all towns have their share of change-averse residents, Sonoma’s can seem a particularly committed coterie when it comes to holding status quo on their beloved backyards.

Take, for instance, just last month, when Watmaugh Road neighbors threatened legal action against the Sonoma Alliance Church’s nighttime winter homeless shelter. Residents stressed they’re not opposed to the homeless, just the inappropriateness of a shelter at that location. That is, in their neighborhood.

In turn, Sonoma’s neighborhood homeless are no doubt in disapproval of the unsatisfactory conditions provided by their secondary option for sanctuary: the embankment beneath the Watmaugh Bridge, where the natural outdoor plumbing flows freely, but proper insolation is sorely lacking.

Last week’s temporary closing and liquidation sale at the iconic Sonoma Cheese Factory can also be credited to neighborhood disapproval – and we don’t mean over the $9 price tag for a 6-ounce jar of “creamy horseradish dip.” The Cheese Factory’s city-approved proposal last year to stimulate sluggish returns by expanding into a multi-vendor marketplace was appealed by neighboring building owners who, along with other skeptics in the community, argue that a new-and-improved Cheese Factory would be too popular for the already-popular downtown business district. Sonoma resident, and eventual City Council member, Logan Harvey at the time summed the local sentiment up best by saying he, too, would love to patronize such a marketplace, and therefore opposed it.

But Sonoma neighbors don’t merely object to seemingly well-regarded business-development proposals.

Some reject the color wheel, as well.

First, there were vehement protests against hot-pastel paint at ice-cream store entrances – the pink-door-at-Grandma’s Ice Cream shop imbroglio of 2014 – in which the hue “cerise delight” eventually won the day.

And then in 2015 there were the jazzy paint designs of the late-artist Rico Martin, whose vibrant exteriors of a handful of Springs storefronts brought not only life to the drab stucco lining the corridor, but no shortage of wrath from Highway 12 neighbors who blasted the décor for not being properly vetted by, well, Highway 12 neighbors.

And who can forget the blower blowback of 2016, when leaf-blower averse city residents literally fumed over their leaf-blower enamored counterparts -- when in a better world neighbors would have bonded together over their shared disapproval of all untethered leaves neither blown nor raked.

Of course, the Mother of All Neighborhood Disapprovals reared her head just last week – a lawsuit calling for an environmental impact report under guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

That’s what happened when, on Jan. 2, Broadway-area neighbors filed suit in Sonoma County Superior Court over their disapproval of a proposal, dubbed the Gateway Project, to build housing and commercial space at the long-suffering eyesore that is the vacant Sonoma Truck & Auto lot at Broadway and MacArthur. The neighbors, who brought legal action under the collective name Friends of the Broadway Corridor, object to the City of Sonoma’s approval of the project without requiring environmental review under CEQA guidelines.

The Gateway Project may very well warrant an EIR – it depends upon whom you ask: the neighbors or the developers; ultimately the court will decide.

But the Gateway Project withstanding, lawsuits demanding EIRs are often the last cards played by disapproving neighbors as they attempt to ratchet up costs to developers in time and money -- in the hope that delay tactics will lead to the abandonment of the project altogether.

For those on the receiving end of these myriad forms of disapproval, consolations are few. Except to point out that neighbors circling the wagons isn’t surprising, is often warranted and is the way things have worked in small communities since time immemorial. Heck, a neighbor vs. neighbor dispute is the central plot point to one of the oldest stories in the Bible: the Genesis fable of Cain and Abel. That’s the one where the world’s first brothers-neighbors-farmers also become the central characters in the world’s first murder, when Cain offed his bro’ because the Man Upstairs liked Abel’s livestock best. Now that’s a businessman willing to compete for his proper share of the market.

Fortunately, Sonomans haven’t taken it that far just yet.

A more appropriate biblical allegory may be the lesser-known Parable of the Importunate Neighbor.

In that riveting entry from the Book of Luke, a man harangues his next door neighbor in the middle of the night in an attempt to cajole dinner rolls out of him to feed a slew of peckish house guests. In the end, the heckler won’t go away and the sleep-deprived chump gives in, forking over a plethora of toasty loaves to his tiresome visitant. This often-overlooked tale is also the origin of the famous line, “Seek, and ye shall find.”

Academics have long pondered the meaning of the parable which, on the surface, seems to be that if you badger and harass your neighbor long enough, they’ll eventually give in to your demands if only to make you go away. (Biblical scholars prefer to read it as an affirmation of the power of prayer, or giving God the hard sell.)

Either way, a similar lesson holds true in Sonoma.

CEQA, and ye shall find.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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