A Sonoma Makeover

How would you change the Valley, if you could?

When you’ve got an entire magazine full of various kinds of makeovers—a mayor, a museum, a Muse, a Barbie doll, a whole bunch of trash made into fashion—why not imagine making over the Valley itself?

So we sent the following invitation to slightly less than 100 people we know from various walks of life, inviting them to imagine having absolute power to make over Sonoma (and, of course, the Valley) any way they wanted.

We posed the question like this:

What would you do for/to Sonoma if you had absolute power?

In a time of both volatile change and resistance to change, many people believe Sonoma is on the threshold of decisions that will shape the kind of community we share for decades to come.

Issues in the public mind range from affordable housing to traffic congestion, public transit, the appropriate number of wine tasting rooms and the size and number of additional hotels. Some people are concerned about the dependence of the Valley’s economy on wine and tourism, others argue that city government is not sufficiently business friendly.

A living wage is on some people’s agenda. The Urban Growth Boundary, that defines the shape and density of Sonoma, is coming up for public renewal and/or change. Preservation of Sonoma’s historic values, architecture and ambiance is of widespread concern.

The future uses of the Sonoma Developmental Center are yet to be determined.

The integration of two parallel but still largely separate cultures—Anglo and Latino—has not progressed as far and as fast as some in both communities would like.

The Valley still lacks a public swimming center and, some argue, adequate resources to entertain and energize the community’s youth.

Climate change, and how a small town can more effectively address it, is on many people’s minds.

So, if you had absolute power (a troubling and Trumpian prospect for some), how would you change this community, how would you make over Sonoma’s future, addressing these issues, or any other ones you think are of significant importance.

Some 20 people promised to respond to our invitation, and 14 made it by our deadline. We hope the following responses will stir more conversation across the Valley. And to be sure, this is conversational ground already well plowed by Sustainable Sonoma, the ambitious initiative spearheaded by the Sonoma Ecology Center, and more than 30 other stakeholder organizations, to chart a similar course with widespread civic participation.

Following 20 community-wide listening sessions in 2018, Sustainable Sonoma recorded more than 1,600 comments about what respondents want for Sonoma Valley’s future. The overwhelming priority in all those comments was the urgent need for affordable housing. (For more information on that front, go to sustainablesonoma.net.)


Richard Dale
A Sonoma Valley Vision

This is the vision we hold. There is a place on earth where we got it right. The people in this place, Sonoma, chose a different path, with nature as a guide instead of an adversary.

We slowly transformed housing, agriculture, and business to fit the form of the land. Farms are on the best soil, on the bottomlands, our communities cluster on the foothills, and our parklands and orchards and vineyards fill spaces between.

The ridges are left for water supply, for wildlife, for inspiration and for recreational trails connecting a ring of mountain inns and views of the Valley. Wide buffers follow streams down the hills, and the main stream provides a corridor for floodwaters and groundwater recharge.

We have shifted our transportation system so that we move around with jitneys, trains, bikes and on foot, and we use personal vehicles for long trips, often sharing rides via rideshare systems.

Water comes from rain. caught on roofs, on paved areas, and in the hills. We slow it down, providing places for it to spread out, sink into the ground, or sit in cisterns for later use. Flooding is less severe, but we welcome it over the low farmlands to transport sediment and feed the soil. We reuse water from the bath and the laundry, sewage is recycled as compost. We do not need water from other places.

Energy comes from the sun and from geothermal wells in places with warm springs. Our homes and workplaces are efficient, capturing solar and wind energy. We produce locally what we need, and share excess with our region. Microgrids complement larger energy grids that are compatible with a thriving environment.

Life itself is our most precious resource. We have wildlife corridors that link large core habitat areas. Roads assure safe passage for people and wildlife. We preserve and enhance habitat for native plants and animals. Fire is a tool to stimulate biodiversity and to reduce catastrophic loss from wildfire.

People, and especially children, have the respect and care they need. Social and educational programs lift us from poverty, assure health, and share our talents with each other and the world that comes to visit. Elders are respected, help raise our young, and share their wisdom. Diversity is celebrated, and diverse interests work together shaping policies that seek multi-benefit solutions.

A wide variety of foods are grown locally. Healthy soil is key to our abundance, with local compost made from home and restaurant waste, and on farms. Biochar further amends the soil and helps hold onto moisture. Artificial fertilizers and pesticides are seldom used. Farmland is subsidized to support its long-term use, its soil a utility our community depends on.

We monitor the vital ingredients of life: water, soil, food, economy, education, health, key plants and animals, climate. As we learn more we work together and adapt, to assure a thriving community and environment.

Richard Dale is executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.


Katherine Fulton
Local Government Needs a Makeover

Sonoma Valley has outgrown its legacy systems for governing itself and shaping its future. The small, romantic, rural Sonoma of the past is no more, and nothing will bring it back. The ever-sprawling Bay Area is now one of the most vibrant economic regions on the planet. As the Valley’s population has increased, so has the complexity and interdependence of the economic, social, and environmental challenges we face.

So I would make over our local government. Sonoma is thinly staffed and led by a volunteer council; it makes decisions (or not) that affect many Valley citizens who live outside the town’s borders. The Valley corridor remains unincorporated and has a single hardworking county supervisor; the new municipal advisory councils planned for the Springs and Glen Ellen will help, but only a little. This is all plainly insufficient.

It would make so much more sense to incorporate more of the Valley into the City of Sonoma—or some other solution that I don’t yet see—and start making policy in more sophisticated ways, which would include much more cooperation between the county and its towns as well.

We don’t have a school system for just the city of Sonoma. So why does it make sense to address other key interconnected challenges—such as workforce housing, the effects of climate change, a more diverse economy, the growth in the senior population, and so much more—in ways that don’t routinely take account of the regional nature of the problems and potential solutions?

At the same time, we need to keep building better mechanisms for citizen involvement across sectors and issues. Our existing nonprofits are wonderful and need more support—and we need new approaches to find integrated solutions and implement them, helping the governments we do have to move faster and smarter. Sustainable Sonoma, a new coalition of economic, social, and environmental constituencies, is in the early stages of providing just this kind of diverse, solution-oriented process. It deserves our patient support in the coming years as we learn to listen to each other and to work together in new ways.

The road to a resilient future must begin by understanding the choices we have now (not the ones we wish we had). We still have time to face our twenty-first-century reality courageously and wisely—actively protecting the Valley’s natural resources while making some necessary trade-offs to shape the best possible future for all the Valley’s residents. Government should lead, not impede, this process.

Katherine Fulton was a co-author of the Sonoma Valley Fund’s 2017 report “Hidden in Plain Sight.” She began her career as a journalist covering local and state government.


Steve Kyle
Feed Humility, Starve Arrogance, Put Tasting Rooms back in Wineries and Let Infill Happen

What would I do for/to Sonoma if I had absolute power?

  1.  I would not allow City Council members to appoint commission members to fill vacant seats. Stacking commissions with members that reflect each City Council member’s point of view should not be acceptable. Luddites with hubris appointing other Luddites with hubris should be a nonstarter.   

Goal: Feed humility, starve arrogance.

  1. Incorporate surrounding areas, such as Diamond A, the Springs, Agua Caliente into the City. The people who live in these areas play an essential role in how our community grows. The city pays for services given to these people but gets no tax dollar benefit because their tax dollars go to the county.

Goal: Bring badly needed tax dollars into town.

  1. Limit tasting rooms. In the four-plus decades we have lived here, the Plaza has gone from an interesting shopping center with many locally owned, unique, small stores to a multitude of winery tasting rooms. For those who want to maintain the old character of the town, they can start here.

Goal: Put the tasting rooms back in the wineries.  

  1. The Urban Growth Boundary was an effort to keep our green space green and infill inside the boundary lines. Great idea, except that the people who want to enforce the UGB are the same people who hold up infill permitting. Example: Five-plus years waiting for a permit for the new hotel slated for West Napa Street, just off the square. Remember the great Sonoma Valley Hospital debate on where it should go? Environmental Impact Studies were not designed to be used as a cudgel and de facto veto power.

Goal: Allow infill to happen where it is supposed to and the surrounding green areas to remain green.

Steve Kyle is a retired event producer, legendary fly caster, philanthropist and civic activist who still rides motorcycles.


Juan Hernandez
Airbnb Reduces Housing for Springs Residents

I recently reviewed some proprietary data on Airbnb. That data revealed that there are over 400 active rentals in Sonoma Valley and that more than 350 are renting the entire house on Airbnb. And the majority of those 350 houses are in the Springs. And the Springs happens to be where most Latino families live.  This is an issue that no one seems to be talking about. But the impact on housing and rental prices for local residents is real when people take their entire home off the rental market and put it on Airbnb instead. 

Juan Hernandez is executive director of La Luz Center, in the Springs.




Suzanne Brangham
Appreciate What We Have

Give me Absolute Power? What a scary job.

I’m in love with our town. It’s magical, captivating, engaging and homespun. I wouldn’t live anywhere else in this world.

I would, though, suggest every resident in this town appreciate what we have and its developmental success over the last 150 years. Sonoma has evolved into one of the most coveted towns in America. While absorbing our surroundings and appreciating its beauty, we chose a wise location and perhaps made the best investment of a lifetime.

Yes, I get ruffled with those who over-complain about the traffic, the crowding, the parking and the tourists (tourists, by the way, who should visit our actual wineries, not their tasting rooms).

We need affordable housing and the Urban Growth Boundary will inevitably change.

We have too many local critics of well-designed additions to Sonoma and, hopefully, they’ll bend. Playing politics doesn’t work in any town—it’s a losing game.

I believe our Latino community is already an integral part of Sonoma, and I love it.

Sonoma has its hurdles. But I trust our systems—and a community of people who truly care—to keep this successfully developed ol’ town on track.

If we had one person with Absolute Power? Extremely dangerous.

I shall not apply for the job.

Suzanne Brangham is a Sonoma Alcaldessa, entrepreneur, developer, artist, author, restaurateur, culinary school founder, hotelier, philanthropist, chair of countless committees, and civic volunteer.



Jim Levy
Standing Still Is Going Backward

The City of Sonoma needs a well-researched, professionally guided, broadly discussed and comprehensive long-term strategic plan that includes:

Forecasts of the environment—ecologic, economic, demographic, competitive, and political—we will face over the next 10 years.

A mission statement: A clearly articulated view of what and who we want to be 5 to 10 years from now, within the context and limits of the forecasts in item 1 above.

A set of objective metrics that can be used to measure our achievement of the mission goals in item 2 above.

The primary strategic initiatives that need to be undertaken to achieve items 2 and 3 above.

The most immediate set of tactical steps that should be taken to start us moving from where we are now to where we want to be when we “grow up.”

All of the issues described in the makeover invitation should fall within the umbrella of this plan, but they will be dealt with as part of an overriding view of who we are now and who we want to be, while recognizing what the world around us will let us be.

The hard part, of course, is going to be reaching some sort of consensus on the above, especially numbers 2 and 4, given the polarization in our body politic (between the NIMBYs and the newbies) and the clear lack of true leadership at almost any level in the city.

However, without going through this process, we are probably doomed to a “Groundhog Day” repeat of what we have seen over the last 10 years. And that will doom us to stand still, which, we all know, is going backward. This process is not easy, but if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

Jim Levy is a semi-retired communications executive, former producer/host of This Week in Sonoma on KSVY Radio, and has conducted this kind of strategic planning “in every business and nonprofit with which I have been involved, as well as for a major strategic initiative for the government of Singapore and some of its investment funds.”


Whitney Evans
Affordable housing—the Number One Need in the Valley

I will focus on a single issue because it is the stone cast into the pond of Sonoma Valley, its ripples reach every corner and person in our beloved Valley.

Affordable housing: The hidden-in-plain-sight research by the Sonoma Valley Fund, the many community forums held by Sustainable Sonoma, a specific survey of our public schoolteachers and staff, and other studies all ranked affordable housing as the number one need in our Valley.

Teachers commuting an hour, law enforcement officers not being able to live in the community they serve, caregivers commuting from the East Bay earning $15 an hour with no reimbursement for mileage, 60 percent of our hospital workers commuting from outside the Valley—the list goes on.

The fabric of our community, the safety net of our community, and the impact on the benefits of being a community where our workers can live in the community they serve are all lost because the workers can’t afford to live here. The haves-and-have-not gap widens, as does the Latino/Anglo interaction.

We must have funding to support those developing plans and the necessary permitting for affordable housing. We must have a YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) community voice to counter the inevitable NIMBY opposition.

Whitney Evans is a former Sonoma Alcalde and a full-time volunteer.


Bob Gardner
Let’s Build Things and Blow-Torch Petty Bureaucratic Restrictions

Sonoma is schizophrenic. You don’t need to be the king—or a shrink—to know that.

Our nonprofit institutions, funded mostly by private donors, make for a vibrant, diverse and amazing community: the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Plein Air, the Authors’ Festival, La Luz, Impact 100, Mentoring Alliance, Sonoma Speaker Series, the Education Foundation, the Vintners & Growers Alliance and so many more.

But when it comes to anything to do with government or bureaucratic oversight, we’re ossified. I keep wondering, could the Sebastiani Theatre be built today? (“A movie theater would ruin the Plaza. Would the architecture blend in? What kind of ego trip is the Sebastiani family on? Look at that huge sign! It will take up all the parking spaces.”)

Case in point: I sat on the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art board for several years. It’s a gem of a small museum and a major asset to the community. But it’s practically invisible. You could walk by it 10 times and not know it’s there. Why? Petty and ridiculous bureaucratic signage restrictions, bordering on vindictive. As king, I’d take a blowtorch to that kind of regulation and interference.

Yesterday’s controversial eyesores are today’s landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid. No, I don’t want a Trump Tower to replace the Cheese Factory. But let’s get stuff done. Build a community pool. Let’s get that West Napa Street hotel project out of red tape and appeals and get the damn thing built in our lifetime. Let’s build affordable housing, even next door to rich liberal NIMBYs.

So, as king or emperor or Exalted Ruler, I’d put a gag order on the people who tie up council meetings (you know who you are) with your endless blow-hard rants and opposition to everything. I’d get stuff built within commonsense guidelines. I’d forbid any council discussion ever again about tasting rooms and leaf blowers. (Violators will be banned to Napa for life.) And while I know there is an aversion to anything that smacks of chains, wouldn’t it be nice to have a nearby In-N-Out Burger? Just asking, not decreeing. 

And last, I’d import a few dozen Republican immigrants to the city. They would adjust quickly, pay lots of taxes, contribute willingly to nonprofits and add some diversity at dinner parties. Right now it’s kind of lonely.

Bob Gardner is a noted communications consultant, advertising executive and unapologetic Sonoma Republican.


Anya Ushakova-Crain
Connection, Belonging, Community

I would begin by extending an invitation to all residents of the Valley of the Moon, asking their participation in a public gathering titled Connection, Belonging, Community. For me, as one deeply engaged in these three concepts as a Cultural Creative devoted to Relational Intelligence, I know that acknowledgement of presence while being seen and heard are the stepstones to finding pathways to connection.

No one is exactly alike and so differences exist. Therefore, the question is ‘How do we build a bridge between us so that you and I might comfortably walk alongside one another, regardless of our differences? As for me, I always invite “the other” into my life to remind me that I am not alone and that my worldview is only one way of looking at everything.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it.” Therefore, taking on the needed challenge of shaping a community for decades to come requires a shift of consciousness. For some, this idea might sound quite radical. What does she mean by this? How is this done? Is this some New Age concept? No. This is an age-old idea whose time is now.

The Native American traditions had in common the use of “the talking stick.” The talking stick was used when the council convened to hear each person’s sacred point of view. It is my belief that change happens when we allow deep listening. To understand how it might feel to walk in another man’s shoes allows sympathy to be present and invites empathy in, as the ultimate guest to understanding the other.

Thinking about Sonoma, I imagine all communities experience the inevitable tension that arises from change of the “old way” and how things have been, to the “new way,” meaning the strangers in our midst who represent change. Sometimes the strangers in our midst are those who have lived among us for years, though without access to power or positions of power. The time has come to meet our neighbors.

At the public gathering, I would ask if there is a willingness to accept personal responsibility by becoming co-creators in imagining a collective vision for Sonoma. Only when everyone has a role to play in the creation of their community will a sense of belonging arise and a congruent community born. Joining me on the stage of this gathering would be those who live in the community and whose voices have not yet been heard. I would ask David Bolling, editor and publisher of Valley of the Moon magazine to join me in co-facilitating such a gathering.

Our conversation would have as its intention inclusion, with the purpose of learning how together we might solve problematic issues of the day, in Sonoma. I would also suggest studying models of countries consistently ranked at the highest level for happiness. We can always learn from the other.

Anya Ushakova-Crain is a writer and consultant in organizational development and transformation who leads transformative group experiences in Sonoma and beyond.


Marcelo Defreitas
Diverse groups should consult on change

I understand the concerns we all have about changes to our quiet small town, where we have chosen to live because of its wonderful qualities. However, change is unavoidable and should be welcomed because it is what prepares our community for the next generation of Sonomans.

Younger residents are moving here, the needs of our community are changing, and I see that happening to accommodate us all. As a 21-year resident of Sonoma, I have seen many changes and I’m sure I will see many more. The big question is, how do we control change, and what modifications can our city support? The answers can only be found by creating a body of consultant citizens, including both new and old residents, retired and active business people, Latinos, Anglos, and other diverse groups whom we have welcomed through the years to participate in decisions on what direction the town should take.

I also must say that I’m optimistic about changes we have made so far. Some have been slower than others, such as the integration of cultures, which some may say hasn’t happened at a fast enough pace. But I will take the baby steps as a sign of positive changes to a more unified Sonoma.

Please, let us open our minds to a future for everyone and not only for those who are our peers and congregate in our circles. Let’s break the wall of resistance to achieve a more successful town in all aspects.

Marcelo Defreitas is a longtime citizen activist and chair of the board of La Luz Center.


Roger Rhoten

I would like for Sonoma to keep its small-town charm, with more affordable housing, have more things for young people to do, including a swimming pool, upgrade our schools, find an environmentally correct solution for the SDC property and, of course, I want to see the Sebastiani Theatre be renovated and expanded to become a first-class venue with expanded programming and to preserve its historical significance in our community. 

Roger Rhoten, with his wife, Diana, has been the guiding force and the saving grace behind the Sebastiani Theatre for more than 25 years.





Steve Page
Bring More Centrist Voices Into Local Discourse

The issues presented here are important but complex. In a few hundred words it’s challenging to do much more than state an objective. For example, the Sonoma Developmental Center should become a resource for a variety of cultural, educational and recreational needs of Valley residents, etc. The more important hurdle in my mind is fostering the kind of cooperative community dialog that can lead to productive outcomes on these and other issues that will define what kind of community we hand off to the next generation.

The gravitation to extremes and the inability of opposing sides to engage with one another is not exclusive to our national politics. In particular, the new center of power in Sonoma city government has ratcheted up the demonization of the business community to a pretty disturbing level. (When our current mayor made her first visit to the Visitors Bureau board after being elected to the council, her opening comment was reportedly, “Well, I guess you guys are the enemy.”) 

We need to inject some balance, but if it comes in the form of bomb-throwing from the other side, it won’t be productive.

Recently I started compiling a list of folks in the community whom I consider to be reasonable voices under the heading of “Sonoma Common Sense.” I don’t know exactly how to engage that group, but, as Woody Allen once said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” And as you know, the folks who tend to show up consistently in the community dialog are those at the extremes whose passion makes them easier to mobilize. It would be helpful to bring some more centrist voices into our local discourse so that our elected are aware they are here and paying attention.

Steve Page is the president and general manager of Sonoma Raceway.


Will Shonbrun
A Living Wage and Affordable Housing for All

The question posed is, what would I do if granted “absolute power” to do anything, politically or otherwise, in the governing of the City of Sonoma? 

An obvious fantasy hook and possible ploy by this magazine’s publisher/editor to cobble together responses and then present his “findings” in an article proposing something like “What Sonoma wants.” Ostensibly, the conclusions would be fortified by the magazine having reached out to a number and variety of people with varying political, social, cultural, and environmental views. Perhaps we are being a tad too cynical here? 

OK, so let’s play and throw into the mix the views of one who’s politically to the left of Lenin. 

Hereby, Shonbrun decrees: 

  1. The City of Sonoma shall pass an ordinance requiring all businesses—commercial, nonprofit, professional or otherwise—to pay a minimum wage of $25/hr. with yearly cost-of-living adjustments. In reality this comes close to a living wage, assuming employees eschew poverty and like to eat occasionally, and reality is the condition in which we all reside. 
  2. Affordable housing 
  3. Fifty percent of all housing developments built in the City of six units or more shall be priced according to the categories of “Low Income,” as determined by state and local agencies. 
  4. The City shall require that the building of affordable housing be in accordance with the yearly total number of such housing units as determined by ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments). 
  5. The City shall provide funding for existing homeless shelters and for the development of new ones. 

Along with a living minimum wage, no person should be without adequate and safe shelter. 

Doing these two basic things would go a considerable way in forming a just and equitable society in Sonoma, as it would and should in this nation. These two actions don’t solve all problems, but they do relieve a lot of human suffering. And furthermore, they’re very doable without a magic wand or genie-granted absolute power. All it requires is a shift in consciousness from self-serving goals to acting on behalf of the whole and therefore to the benefit of each. 

Si se puede.

Will Shonbrun is a Sonoma Valley writer and author, publisher of the Sonoma Valley Voice, co-founder of the North Bay Progressive Newspaper (2000-2005) and author of two novels, most recently, The Road to Find Out.


Steve Ledson
Supply, Demand, and Positive Planning

The first thing I want to say is I love our little town of Sonoma. My family has been in Sonoma County since 1862; it’s a special place in the world.

I am not a proponent of more government controls, but I am a proponent of planning with a long-term vision in mind. Cities used to plan way in advance for the future, they would have the entire city laid out by blocks, neighborhoods and lots. Take the east side of Sonoma, you create neighborhoods with character, you plan in advance for utilities, fire, police, and safety access. Everyone knows what to expect if they purchase property in the area. You’re having professionals do the work and they see the big picture of the City all at once, as opposed to what happens now.

Look at some of the infill projects in Sonoma: houses only on one side of the street, row housing, no concern for the look or feel that a project will have on the town. Neighbors with a “not in my backyard” mentality, protest anything built around them, complain about building heights, or that new development blocks a scenic view, or some other personal issue to block projects. Proper long-term planning with the big picture in mind of what Sonoma should look and function like in future years is what we should be focused on. The focus has been lost when it comes to the historic values, architecture, ambiance and value engineering. So we waste money that could be spent on affordable housing. We spend money to please individuals instead of focusing on the bigger picture that affects all of us.

The rising cost of homes and rentals is a result of supply and demand. A limited housing stock drives prices up, which means fewer people can afford to live here. And if you impose more restrictions on developers, the costs go up and the increase has to come from somewhere. The developer absorbs it, passes the increase along to the consumer and, if he can’t make a living, he won’t build.

I don’t believe in controls on the amount of tasting rooms or any other businesses on the Plaza. This only increases rents and businesses charging more for their products. The wine industry as a whole is on the verge of a major adjustment; wine prices are dropping as people are being more frugal with luxury purchases. I believe it is better to just let businesses and the economy run a natural course.

Public transit and traffic congestion relates to long-term planning. People who can’t afford to live here commute to town for work, creating congested streets. Or, people commute to other towns for work in higher-paying professional jobs. Ad hoc planning, instead of comprehensive planning, has been the issue here over the years. It didn’t just happen.

Hotel rooms are also a supply and demand issue. We have created a tourist destination, and many young citizens make their living from hotels and the tourism industry. The more jobs we have for these young people, the better balance in our city and the less traffic going in and out of town.

Projects are approved in this town with little thought of how they complement Sonoma’s look and feel, the jobs created and placement for traffic and transit issues. We have become a society of negativity, not positivity. As a developer, I have built in many cities and counties of Northern California, including plenty that are a lot tougher to deal with than Sonoma.

Do we want to get nothing done and just argue, like the rest of America today? Or do we want to work together with a positive approach and make a difference for our future? I challenge all of us to approach the Planning Commission and City Council, people who commit their time for next to nothing, with a positive approach to make things better, not a negative approach all about ourselves.

Steve Ledson is a Sonoma Valley developer, winemaker, and philanthropist.


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