Gridlock Sonoma

Story Mary Cardaras
Photos David Bolling

Susan Hattam Davis grew up in Sonoma. This is what
she remembers:

“There was only ONE stoplight forever. The one at the Safeway intersection was it! That was the only light, and it remained that way until the ‘80s sometime.

You could drive clockwise around the Plaza with no arterial stop signs back in the ’70s. They added stoplights on Highway 12 and Arnold Drive around the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“Life was simple in Sonoma and not riddled with tourists. The Plaza was designed for the locals back then and traffic was nothing—easy to park, with no fees or worries about a parking ticket. I remember when the Plaza had a grocery store, two pharmacies, a fabric store, clothing and shoe stores, a hardware store, multiple local bars, family style restaurants, banks, a music store, barber shops and more essential places for locals to carry out their everyday needs.”

Many other native Sonomans nostalgically remember that one-stoplight small town and the character of the vines before the Valley became picture postcard perfect and one of the nation’s top tourist destinations. The vines were rustic and wild back then, surrounded by wildflowers and weeds. This was a rural small town, perhaps only really appreciated by those who lived here.

Now, because it is literally visited by people from around the world, it is appreciated and admired by most who journey through, eating at some of the area’s top restaurants, drinking some internationally recognized wine and learning about the history of the California Republic from the place where it all began in 1846.

Of course, were you able to ask a member of the Pomo, Wintun or Miyakmah tribes—who inhabited Sonoma Valley 12,000 years ago—what life was like back then, she or he might recall streams full of salmon, fields without fences, villages with no roads and not a car in sight. Thirty people might have constituted a crowd.

Times change, and so has Sonoma. Today the vines are coiffed and trellised. Big corporations and family interests carpet the town and surrounding valley where wineries host concerts and fundraisers, outdoor movie screenings, farm-to-table extravaganzas and weddings galore. This valley has also become one of Silicon Valley’s go-to playgrounds, which has upped the ante in terms of defining the conversation about who we are and what we want to become.

But the metric easiest to measure from the seat of a car is all the other cars on the same stretch of road around you. Traffic is most obvious indicator of change, often the first thing people complain about.

U.S. News and World Report named Sonoma the best small town in America this year, noting, “It boasts all the charms of a rustic yet refined locale without the crowds and price tag of its larger neighbor, Napa.” Visit the wineries, the article added, but “spend the day exploring the shops and restaurants along the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza.” Other national publications have put a spotlight on Sonoma’s July Fourth parade as one of the country’s best small-town celebrations. And in 2014, Travel and Leisure magazine named Sonoma “one of America’s quirkiest towns.”

With a population just over 11,000 people, according to the city’s latest profile report, the town is set to grow by 5.3 percent by 2021. Housing is at a premium and so are hotel rooms. Many visitors come for the day or stay nearby if they can’t find a room in town. The Valley desperately needs more affordable housing, and tourists would like additional lodging for visitors, but those demands highlight these questions: To grow the town or not? And if so, how? All of which loops back to the question of traffic.

From almost any route leading in and out of town, or simply across town, residents and visitors alike now have to factor in traffic congestion as they plan the day’s errands, business and recreation. On some days, and during some particular hours, to drive across town can take half an hour—say from Eighth Street East and East Napa Street (at Sonoma’s Best market) to Highway 12 at Agua Caliente Road.

This highlights the problem of limited routes into and out of Sonoma. Currently, there are only two practical roads into the Valley—Warm Springs Road/Arnold Drive on the west side and Highway 12 to the east. To exit the Valley there are three basic options: Stage Gulch Road to Petaluma; Highway 116 to Sears Point and the Route 37 quagmire; Route 12 to Napa, Vallejo or Sacramento.

Highway 12 through the Springs is a traffic tar baby, even after completion of the epic Caltrans-sanctioned sidewalk improvements, and it funnels traffic flow downstream to the Plaza. Arnold Drive has developed its own gridlock in the last decade during morning and evening rush hours. And the gravitational pull of the Plaza seems to direct the bulk of through traffic to the center of town, the historic and picturesque number-one point of interest.

The Sears Point mess on Highway 37, the prime feeder route from Vallejo to 101, is the product of a four-lane highway necking down to two lanes. The whole North Bay is eagerly awaiting a solution, which will probably come in the form of a “public-private partnership,” in other words a four-lane, elevated toll road to accommodate sea level rise. Just don’t expect it soon.

Closer to town, alternative routes that might ease congestion come with their own sets of problems. Traffic could be diverted around Sonoma, but that would put additional strain on neighborhoods and roads that skirt the town on Watmaugh, Arnold, Eighth Street East, Leveroni Road, Madrone and Agua Caliente.

From Napa county to the east, there can be a conga line of cars coming to town, many of which attempt to navigate a better way into Sonoma. Some turn north on Eighth Street East and then head west on Napa into town. Others take a shortcut, turning left on MacArthur Street from where visitors can park, embedded on tree-lined, residential streets farther from the center of town but a walkable distance from the Plaza.

There is no way around the problem of traffic. Literally. Any way you navigate your way in and around Sonoma you encounter it. While tourism is a significant contributor (by how much, no one knows precisely), so is the increased flow through Sonoma from Napa, Vallejo, even Fairfield, from the East, and Santa Rosa and Petaluma from the west. This once sleepy little enclave has developed into a revenue-generating tourist magnet, as well as a bottleneck for through traffic.

According to Sonoma County Indicators, an annual compilation of economic, environmental, social and employment data compiled by the county’s Economic Development Board, about seven million people visited Sonoma County last year and the Sonoma Visitors Bureau logged in 270,000 unique visitors. The annualized lodging occupancy rate for Sonoma hit 74 percent, up 12.5 percent since 2012. And the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) levied for every overnight stay in town, grew by 58 percent from 2012, up nearly $1.4 million. That money goes straight into Sonoma’s general fund. The results will help the city plan and, if it grows, to grow responsibly.

The question now is how much further do Sonoma residents want to accommodate short-term visitors, or even future long-term residents? How much growth is too much? Reactions to the proposed West Napa Street hotel, which is currently in limbo while its Environmental Impact Report is revised, offer something of a litmus test.

The community seems fairly evenly split between those who want to maintain the existing small-town feel by resisting more hotels or other big changes, and those who believe tourism should be intelligently embraced as the lifeblood of the local economy. Traffic is one of the points of contention about the hotel project, notwithstanding that two traffic studies have been conducted at project expense and under city oversight, with conclusions that indicate impacts on circulation and parking would be minimal.

Members of the “grow Sonoma” contingent say they want sensible, measured growth and want town administrators to just figure it out and plan for a future that heralds progress, opportunity and vision. This group includes young progressives and new business owners who have chosen to make Sonoma home and a place in which to raise their families. They want their city government to think more inclusively and with a stronger commitment to social justice for minority communities.

Sonoma filmmaker Casey Beck, who intends to raise a family here says, “Sonoma’s economy, like the rest of the American economy, has relied on an underclass, which is especially true in Wine Country. What I would like to see is these ‘progressives’ and northern Californians be true to their ideals and bring the underclass into the fold.” This means, she says, expanding the footprint of the town to make more room for affordable housing. And that, of course, would put additional pressure on the complicated issue of traffic. But Beck is all for it just the same.

“It disgusts me to hear Sonomans ‘redline’ the crisis of growth by resisting it,” she says. “This naturally excludes people. Inclusivity means we have to accommodate people, not force people out of the way, and potentially out of town, to avoid dealing with the challenges that come with it.”

Which brings us to the Holy Grail in the battle against urban sprawl and the additional traffic it generates—the city’s Urban Growth Boundary. The so-called UGB was approved by Sonoma voters in 2000 by a two-thirds majority and draws a line around city limits beyond which new development cannot take place. The UGB expires in 2020 and is guaranteed to be the topic of hot debate as city planners and the public examine its impacts and alternatives. UGBs have been blamed for driving California home prices through the roof, and praised for putting a lid on urban sprawl. Generally, when housing demand exceeds supply as critically as it does in Coastal California—the alternatives are to build up or out. Either outcome puts more cars on the road in the absence of better public transportation, which is almost completely lacking in Sonoma.

Already, according to a Project Planning Summary provided by Sonoma’s Planning Department, an additional 100 apartments and 56 townhomes are in various stages of development. David Goodison, the city’s planning director, reminds that Sonoma has an ordinance that limits the average annual rate of residential development to no more than 65 units per year. “So, although we are currently experiencing a spike in development applications, over the long term the rate of residential growth in Sonoma is limited,” he says. But even at that rate of controlled growth, with an increasing number of visitors, the problem of increased traffic can’t be understated.

Meanwhile, changes and improvements in traffic flow are hard to come by. While Santa Rosa and the 101 corridor just got a SMART train, Sonoma doesn’t even have Golden Gate Transit bus service to San Francisco. And the opportunity for improved traffic circulation in town is limited. Such improvements could include new traffic patterns in, out and around town, additional parking, shuttles to move people from specific pick-up and drop off points, and more safe walkways and bike lanes for pedestrians and cyclists.

Focal points for traffic congestion include: Broadway and Napa Street in front of city hall; Fifth Street West and Spain Streets, just behind Redwood Credit Union; the light at West Napa and Fifth Street West, where the Safeway and Sonoma Market are, catty-corner from each other; and Napa Road and Fifth Street East.

But vehicle traffic isn’t the only transportation issue. Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett says the boom in tourists has naturally increased the numbers of people who walk. “Yes, the town is becoming more and more congested with vehicle traffic,” he says, “but there is also the challenge of increased pedestrian traffic, too. Mitigating vehicle congestion will have an impact on people who walk in and around town.”

Moving automobile traffic more smoothly through the town will help people on foot navigate the town more safely and comfortably as they stroll and wander around. But increasing traffic also has an inevitable impact on people who choose to bike around town, especially to the Plaza where the action is. Which raises questions about more designated bike lanes, room for banks of bike racks, or areas for bike valets to accommodate cyclists who want to leave their bikes someplace safe as they enjoy the town.

Sonomans have been largely reluctant to accept a traffic mitigation solution successfully adopted in other towns, and that is roundabouts. Popular all over Europe and employed in Boston for almost 400 years, roundabouts are so far unwelcome in Sonoma which has only one, the recently constructed circle on Arnold Drive in front of Hanna Boys Center.

The city has considered, but did not at all warm to, a roundabout in front of the Plaza at Broadway. It would have impacted the horseshoe lawn in front of City Hall and changed the ambiance at that corner where there is now a difficult four way stop. According to Goodison, “When the Planning Commission reviewed the concept in the update of the Circulation Element, a majority of the Commission were deeply skeptical, to say the least, as to feasibility and appropriateness of a roundabout at that location. The City Council did not get into the issue as deeply in their review of the Element, but they did not promote the concept.”

A smaller roundabout, however, is under consideration at the corner of Fifth Street West and Spain Street. Also under consideration, at the same location, is “restriping the eastbound and westbound approaches to add right turn lanes,” according to the 2016 Circulation Element report.

The city has commissioned detailed studies of the traffic problems in town and there are some possible remedies under consideration. But the Circulation Element nevertheless claims that “future changes to traffic patterns in the city will largely be determined by the location of jobs and housing in Sonoma and the region, and by improvements to the local street system.” Those include widening lanes in certain spots, such as on Napa Street from Fifth Street West to Second Street West, and adding a so-called “road diet” on Broadway from MacArthur Street to West Napa Street, that could include “a three lane configuration” to “help regulate vehicle speeds” for the benefit of pedestrians. Such a plan could also “create space for bicycle facilities,” says the study, and would additionally create space for more parking.

Sonoma Highway from Riverside Drive to Maxwell Village might also be developed to include “five lanes, two lanes in each direction, a center turn lane and bike lanes.” Also under consideration, is a stoplight at Fifth Street East and Napa Road where there is currently a four way stop.

None of these solutions will be easy, given the inevitable complications created by road construction in general and the town’s glacial pace of changing much about the town.

As Planning Director, David Goodison has called Sonoma home for the past 25 years. His commute to work is negligible and he works at the center of it all—in a spacious corner office in City Hall overlooking the historic Plaza. What does Sonoma’s top planner like most about the town? That, he says, it really hasn’t changed much at all.

And therein lies both the challenge and the beauty of Sonoma.



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