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History of Urban Growth Boundaries

By Jack Ding

“History is the Future.” This is the motto of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. I often think about this motto and the meaning behind it, which brings me to our upcoming vote on the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). A UGB is simply a line around a town or city which limits housing, commercial and other types of urbanized development beyond that line. The City of Sonoma’s UGB expires in December 2020 and I have been thinking about the future of our hometown Sonoma, and our proud legacy of environmental protections that have protected the City of Sonoma and the whole Valley.  

I wanted to share some information and a timeline on urban growth boundaries and why they are so important here in Sonoma:

  • At the end of the 19th century in England, the concept of the UGB originated as a result of opposition to unregulated urban growth and ribbon development.

  • In the United States, the first UGB was established in 1958, around the city of Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington's population was expanding, and city leaders were concerned about the survival of the surrounding horse farms closely tied to the city's cultural identity. 

  • In the early 1970s, the first statewide Urban Growth Boundary policy was implemented in Oregon as part of the state's land-use planning program.

  • In California, Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) were established in 1963 and administer a section of California planning law. LAFCOs are independent regional service planning agencies and are located in all 58 counties. They have planning powers in step with their prescribed directive to help local government agencies and municipal service areas meet current and future community needs. 

  • During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the entire Bay Area experienced rapid and sprawling development due to the Silicon Valley and high-tech boom, resulting in the loss of prime farmland, wetlands and open space. That spread to Marin and Sonoma Counties with so-called Telecom Valley and Software Valley.

  • In the early 1990s, local residents started discussing UGBs in Sonoma County, including in the City of Sonoma. Locals wanted a greater role in deciding how the city would be developed and how to preserve the natural environment of Sonoma Valley.

  • In 1993, the Sonoma City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors established a Joint Powers Agreement to create the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission. The SVCAC meets monthly and advises the elected officials and government agencies on growth and development in the Valley of the Moon. The Commission geographically represents the entire Sonoma Valley, by definition stretching 24 miles from Kenwood to Sears Point, and from the crest of the Sonoma Mountain, east to the Sonoma-Napa County line along the Mayacamas Mountain. 

  • From 1994 to 2000, the prospect of a city UGB was extensively discussed in numerous public meetings by the City Council and the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission. It was thoroughly studied, researched and approved by professional planners.

  • In 2000, under the leadership of the Former Mayor, Larry Barnett, Measure S was prepared and put on the ballot with the question, “Shall the ordinance amending the City of Sonoma General Plan to establish an urban growth boundary be adopted?” Although a city's General Plan and zoning ordinances only have legal effect within the city's boundaries, under state law, a city's general plan must, among other things, address "land outside its boundaries which... bear relation to its planning." As a supporter of Measure S, then City Council Member Ken Brown treated the UGB as powerful insurance against a future growth-oriented council majority that might want to expand the city.   

  • In 2000, Sonoma County Conservation Action, Sonoma Ecology Center and other non-profits endorsed Measure S. They believed Measure S would allow for the expansion of the city limit, if needed, and for the creation of affordable housing. Affordable housing costs would not be borne by the taxpayer, but would be mandated by the state and built with funds set aside in the City's Redevelopment Agency. Leaders agreed the UGB would not raise home prices. 

  • November 7, 2000 was a big day for the City of Sonoma’s UGB. The UGB was approved by 2,966 votes accounting for 63.7% Yes and 1,689 votes as 36.3% No. 

  • The existing UGB extends to our city limits, plus a few edges beyond in certain areas, in county lands which are considered to fall under the City of Sonoma’s “sphere of influence.” These lands can be annexed and developed by the City under the existing UGB.

Time has flown! From a historical perspective, 20 years is a mere snap of the fingers. The City of Sonoma’s UGB will expire on December 31, 2020. A group of Sonoma city residents and business owners formed a nonprofit social-welfare organization in June 2019, “Citizens to Renew City of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary Committee,” to educate our community and support the renewal of our current UGB. Reviewing the UGB’s history in Sonoma, I have seen that voter education has played and will continue to play an important role in this issue. This is a complex issue and not always easy to understand, but it is an important one.  

I hope that this article has given voters a clearer picture of why this is so critical for our community. I have researched this issue along with my partners on the Citizens to Renew City of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary Committee and feel strongly that, in order to protect our city’s natural environment, it is in the best interests of Sonoma Valley that we renew of the City of Sonoma’s existing Urban Growth Boundary with a vote of the people this November, before it expires in December 2020.


Yes on W - Citizens to Renew the City of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary
755 Broadway, Sonoma, CA 95476
FPPC #1419285
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