Friday, December 4, 2015

Keeping the Urbanist Toolbelt Fully Stocked

Community separator near Petaluma
“Community separator” is a term of which many may not be aware, even in the North Bay, but community separators will be getting serious attention in Sonoma County during 2016.  The discussion will be important to urbanism.

In my perfect land-use world, gas would be accurately priced to account for its environmental and geopolitical costs, not just its extraction, refining, and delivery costs.  People would pay tax bills that correctly reflected the costs of supporting their choice of housing location.  And we would no long pretend that parking can be free.

In that perfect world, walkable urban development would burgeon as the affordable choice for many folks.  And, although many families would still have a car because cars can be remarkably useful for some tasks, much more travel would be done by foot, bicycle, and transit as the more affordable choices.

Today, we’re a long way from that ideal world.  Gas continues to be subsidized.  Housing location costs continue to be offloaded to other residents or to future generations.  And we rely on a host of financial devices to balance the books.  Or at least to pretend we do.

But the ideal world still has lots of appeal to folks, at least in theory.  And so we have filled our belts with tools intended to protect the possibility of the ideal world against the pressure of the flawed marketplace signals that we’ve allowed.

Perhaps the most well-known tool is urban growth boundaries, limits set to confine the horizontal expansion of cities, forcing at least some growth to be vertical.  (I still have a philosophical discomfort with setting “forever” limits on town growth and then leaving the door open to revisit the boundary every twenty years, but that’s a conversation for another time.)

Over my career, I’ve had a first-hand look at the evolution of urban growth boundaries, or UGBs.  I now live in Petaluma, location of the first municipal UGB, after spending many years in Oregon, the first state to adopt UGBs as statewide policy.  (Petaluma and Oregon developed the concept at roughly the same time, so generally share the credit.)  I remain a fan of the concept if not always the execution.

But UGBs aren’t the only tools available to counteract artificially-conceived pseudo market forces.  Zoning can also fill a role.  And even more pertinently, transects, the urbanist equivalent of zoning, are specifically tailored to preserve strong urban forms.

However, those tools work on the inside of UGBs and would be for naught if the counties with jurisdiction outside the UGBs allowed unfettered development.

As there are inside the UGBs, there are tools that restrict development outside the UGBs.  Zoning can play a role, as can limited access to water and sewer service.  In Sonoma County, community separators are also among the tools.

Community separators function as greenbelts, preventing upzoning and increased development intensity within their boundaries, allowing Sonoma County communities to remain physically and culturally distinct.  (For the alternative future, consider the Los Angeles basin or the South Bay.)

The Sonoma County community separators were approved by the voters in 1996 with a life of twenty years.  So, if the protections they offer are to be continued, the voters must again approve the separators during 2016.

The Greenbelt Alliance, as an element of their support for Priority Conservation Areas, has been leading advocates for the retention and possible expansion of the current community separators.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is planning a December 15 workshop on community separators.  In advance of that meeting, the Greenbelt Alliance is working to secure letters of support from the cities of Sonoma County for the community separators.  The Petaluma City Council will consider their letter at their December 7 meeting.  I intend to be there, although I expect that the Council is already inclined to support the letter.

For many readers, especially for those not in Sonoma County, this may be their first introduction to community separators.  But it won’t be their last.  I strongly support both the retention of the current separators and their expansion.  And I’ll touch upon the subject often between now and the anticipated 2016 ballot measure.

The separators alone won’t preserve a more urbanist future, but they’re one tool of many that support that future and every tool is important.

My next topic will be porches.  It’s easy to think of porches as filling needs in spring, summer, and fall, but less so in winter.  However, porches can provide a welcoming transition during the holidays between winter weather and cheery settings.  They can also provide a setting for decorations that can send goodwill out into the neighborhood.  Who doesn’t feel a bit better when passing by a festively decorated porch at the Yuletide?  In the next few days, I’ll be decorating my porch and will then write about porches in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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