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OPINION: Exploiting Environmentalists to Develop Land after the Fire

Sep 1, 2018
by Duane Dewitt

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     Conservative environmentalists from the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti of northern Sonoma County along the Russian River may have been the earliest European immigrants into the county who regularly practiced sustainable land use management practices. Of course, the Native Americans who were already living in harmony with nature in the area for millennia were already far ahead, in this regard, of the Spanish conquistadors, Russians, and other Europeans who have been making their mark on local land for a few centuries now. About 55 to 60 years ago some Sonoma County residents began to push back on the abuse of Sonoma county’s natural environment, as Italian Swiss Colony winery was fading away. The “new” environmentalists worked hard to have some “nature conservation” successes which are still celebrated by some Sonoma county residents.

     Close to 30 years ago Sonoma County conservationists and environmentalists worked together to pass legislation to have a Sonoma County Agricultural Protection and Open Space District founded with taxpayers’ money. This government agency has preserved land from being “developed” by buying land to keep it natural in “perpetuity”. Local environmental groups in the San Francisco Bay area and Sonoma County often point to the successes of this resident-led initiative as proof we in the North Bay are a “Green” community. As a matter of fact, many of the organizations promoting tourism to the North Bay and Sonoma County invoke the natural beauty and conservation as marketing tools to get the visitors to come to the “Sonoma County Wine Country”. Going green has become a profitable approach now.

     Exploiting these nice natural assets for profit is nothing new, but now it seems environmentalists are being exploited in ways the nature conservationists did not expect. Some “local environmental” groups were recently courted by pro-land development politicians such as California Assemblymember Jim Wood of Healdsburg to support an anti-California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law he helped author. CEQA has been around since the 1970s when voters were aware of many of the negative effects of land development. Now in a cavalier display of “disaster capitalism” rivaling the worst of “crony capitalism” Wood has thrown these local environmental groups under the bus of local land developers.

     Invoking the October 2017 fires which burned in areas of Santa Rosa where local people had warned against building on the ridge tops of hills in the 1980s and 1990s, Wood shows no shame in exploiting environmentalists. He put forward an Assembly Bill AB 2267 which has essentially gutted CEQA in Santa Rosa and other parts of Sonoma County for at least the next 5 years. His website states:

     “The devastating North Bay fires destroyed more than 8,000 people’s homes including more than 3,000 in Santa Rosa alone. These losses, combined with an already existing countywide shortage of affordable and available housing, have pushed Santa Rosa and Sonoma County into an extraordinary housing crisis that threatens the health of the regional economy and the future of its residents.”

     “We have support from local environmental groups and I have worked hard to narrowly focus this review process to assure that environmental protections are met while allowing the city and county to address the extraordinary housing crisis and the need to expedite rebuilding of a community devastated by last year’s wildfires,” said Wood.

     As a nature conservationist and environmentalist, I do not believe Mr. Wood in any way, shape, or form that he, “will assure that environmental protections are met while allowing the city and county to address the extraordinary housing crisis.” He has essentially rolled whatever so-called environmental groups he says support his legislation, which is basically a give-away to land developers. Burned areas were already entitled to CEQA exemptions. He states, “AB 2267 creates a streamlined CEQA process for projects that meet specified density, affordable housing, environmental and labor requirements. It gives the City of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County a critical tool to incentivize development that will quickly and responsibly renew the area with a carefully planned, climate-smart infill development rather than increasing the suburban sprawl into valued wildland environment.”

     You can bet Santa Rosa will be seeking to use this legislation for projects far from downtown Santa Rosa, and far from the fire areas. Targeted areas will include the southwest Santa Rosa areas of the Roseland and Wright school districts where there is NOT the infrastructure in place to support the many housing projects proposed there over the last 25 years. With sensitive wildlife species already at risk in the area, those local environmental groups Wood has in his camp would do well to prove they are real environmentalists and not Posers. Otherwise, they may fade away as did Italian Swiss Colony, once proud but now gone.

     Why support environmental groups that DO NOT and CANNOT protect our environmental laws?

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