The Story of How Sonoma Was Ruined

Sci-fi author, Douglas Adams once talked about how an edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica fell through a rift in the time-space continuum from 1000 years in the future. What if a Patch article fell through such a rift from the year 2020?

The commute, 2020
The commute, 2020
Dec 3rd, 2020: Commuting from Sonoma to Marin, Oakland or San Francisco has become a nightmare. Most Sonoma commuters  face a stark choice between a 4-5 hour roundtrip in the car or even longer on transit. Quality of life is being affected, stresses are being placed on families, more divorces are happening. People are losing their jobs or not able to reach job opportunities in San Francisco or the East Bay. Realtors have been telling people to lower their house prices to sell. 

It's affecting those with lower incomes the worst as they can't easily get to jobs - and some need to work two jobs to make ends meet, but that's not possible anymore.

The Transit Story that Never Materialized

The promised transit alternative turned out to be no more than a leap of faith where the theory was never rigorously validated. Somehow to make transit work the geniuses in planning justified it by building more and more high density housing. All the dreamlike promises of the so-called "smart" train seemed to have been overlooked:

- you had to park at the bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus left (if you were unlucky the bus was full and you had to wait 20 minutes for the next one)
- you had to wait 5 minutes at the station for the train to arrive
- at Larkspur you had to walk 5 minutes and wait 5 minutes
- on reaching the ferry terminal you again had to walk 5 minutes then wait 5 minutes

The cost of taking transit was over $45 a day, over $10,000 a year (something like $13,000 pre-tax income).

You remember the claims "SMART will reduce 101 congestion". You wonder just what happened? What could have been done to stop Sonoma effectively being cut out of commute range of Marin, San Francisco and Oakland?

You wonder how it ever was considered common sense that all this building would reduce greenhouse gas emissions when all around you you see traffic congestion and needless, avoidable emissions.

How Did it Happen?

The changes were subtle but cumulative over the years. You'd lived in your house, trusting that local politicians were doing the right thing. But not realizing that they had succumbed to a dogma of "transit oriented development", or in many cases simply "development". 

You'd heard of Plan Bay Area - but didn't know much about it. Someone once told you it was a big deal. That it opened up the Bay Area for extensive high density development around transit hubs and together with State Senate Bills removed much of the obstacles to over-development. You didn't quite grasp that Sonoma was almost entirely built around transit hubs once they counted the train and bus stops.

The first sign of trouble was Grafton Casino in Rohnert Park. It didn't seem like an issue - it opened in November. But that first summer day commute on a Friday evening the combination of thousands of casino goers added to commuters and day trippers really jammed 101. That night instead of getting home at 6:45pm you arrived home at 8pm. You thought it was just a fluke. But then it started to happen every Friday; other weekdays became bad.

Win Cup - the First Warning

Then there was Win Cup in Corte Madera in Marin. The 4 story 170 housing unit apartment built back in 2013 had seemed to be built for all the right reasons - it was to provide affordable housing wasn't it? The new residents would take nearby transit. It was only years later you heard it was almost entirely market rate. The local newspaper conducted a survey to discover almost all of the residents took at least 2 trips a day in their cars.

The "Coup De Grace - Larkspur Station Area Plan

But the one thing you regret looking back is not opposing the Larkspur Station Area Plan. You drove past Larkspur almost every day, sometimes you took the ferry. Back in 2013 it was just an inconvenience - a traffic bottleneck that you figured would get sorted out.

But the Larkspur Station Area Plan changed all that - defenders of the plan proclaimed it "planned nothing". But what it did was to open up the area to 920 high density housing units. The defenders claimed the new residents would all take the nearby ferry or the train. They used this to justify the removal of the 100 ferry terminal parking spots - what a mess that made of ferry parking. Now you had to pay and it was a lottery whether you'd get a spot.

Once built the change was irreversible. The extensive 920 housing units made the 180 unit Win Cup look like a small apartment block. You put Larkspur Landing on your list as one of those places never to shop because finding parking was one of the most infuriating experiences you'd ever had.

As the new residents moved in the 101 northbound crawl became steadily worse. You thought about biking, but the 80 mile round trip might have seemed practical to the eco-warriors who pushed Larkspur Landing through but it was never going to work for you.

Fremont Arrives in Sonoma

Once Corte Madera and Larkspur had high density housing the precedent was set and the appetite whetted for developers - it happened everywhere around the Bay Area. Developers and special interests had perfected how to get development approved, removing obstacles such as cries from residents that their beautiful, treasured county and their small towns were being irreversibly changed.

You took a trip up to Vancouver's suburbs and Bellevue to see friends or for work - and you realized this is what was in store for Marin.

Finally you reflected - you'd really enjoyed living in Sonoma - but after about 2015 the place had changed. It was no longer the place you once knew, that you loved.

What Can You Do to Stop This?

Sadly the above fictional story is not too far from what may happen to Sonoma commuters. Instead of asking "what could I have done?" the answer is we're approaching a tipping point now. Here's what you can do:

1) Donate to Politicians Opposing High Density Housing
Someone far wiser than I shared with me last week that while our houses are an enormous investment that we treasure, and we might not think twice about spending $120 to go out for dinner and a movie, many of us don't donate to politicians to preserve and defend what we stand for.

In Marin this means donate to Marin Community Alliance and vote for two emerging supervisor candidates - Toni Shroyer and Carol Brandt. In Sonoma please post comments to educate others on how they can help.

2) Sign the Petition Opposing the Larkspur Station Area Plan
Sign the online petition. But if you drive on 101, and transit or biking are not an option, then you shouldn't hesitate to add your name to defend against this ludicrous plan to add 920 housing units at Larkspur Landing.

Is this exactly how the future will play out? - probably not exactly. What do you think we should be doing about it?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Ralph Hutchinson December 04, 2013 at 09:24 AM
Ironic shortly after the election to save Sonoma's quaint character such a piece is published. It's too bad...it's already gone.
Sharon Moretti December 07, 2013 at 02:17 PM
What if people stopped having children? That would be a step toward sanity.
Richard Hall December 08, 2013 at 10:13 AM
@Sharon - no that's not a solution. Marin and Sonoma's population have historically grown very slowly - at about 1% a year over the last 2 decades according to the US Census. What's happening though is developers and special interests are justifying growth by saying population is going to massively jump to 2% or 4% a year so we must build and build. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ We can accommodate this continued slow growth without ruining the small town character of our area - with second units and continued low density building via infill (to prevent sprawl).
Joan December 09, 2013 at 07:37 PM
Looks like the Bay Area is on its way to becoming one of world wide trends: mega cities of 10 million or more people. That seems to be where we are going unless we fight the trend.
Bill Casey January 03, 2014 at 02:04 PM
Our land use has been already limited by grape and agriculture use and I want to keep it that way. We have lost our forests and cattle along the 101 corridor and west Sonoma county land preservation efforts are working . NOW it is infill we have to worry about. In the past, the commute factor kept a lot of folks from moving here but light rail will alleviate that to some extent. No good answers....but we need to seek them! for sure! otherwise chains of fast foods and roads like Santa Rosa Ave in Santa Rosa will pop up everywhere!


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