The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors decided to approve the community separator ballot measure and proposed additions of lands with the changes below, which will be finalized at the August 2 2016 supervisors meeting on the Consent Calendar (public hearing closed, no more public comment unless more changes are made).
Five of the “community separators” set to expire at the end of 2016 surround Sonoma Mountain. Some of them are linked directly to wildlife corridors that allow travel from the Mayacamas to the mountain and beyond.
Twenty years ago, voters countywide adopted an initiative to preserve these sorts of green places between Sonoma’s towns and cities. The County Board of Supervisors is now developing a ballot measure to renew voter protections.
The community separators have prevented housing tracts and shopping malls from sprawling into these open space buffers, ensuring that significant stretches of natural and working lands between our communities continue to thrive and grow. See Maps of Sonoma County Community Separators.
Sonoma County’s community separator policy prevents county leaders from approving major housing, commercial, and industrial development in designated lands between towns and cities. These popular voter-backed protections passed with more than 70% of the vote. Greenbelt Alliance is leading the way to renew and strengthen the voter mandate that protects community separators from Petaluma and Sonoma to Windsor and Healdsburg.
The purpose of community separators is three-fold—they serve as green buffers between cities and towns, contain urban development, and preserve the rural charm of Sonoma County’s landscape. The county’s eight community separators cover 17,000 acres of natural and farm lands. These policies complement the cities’ urban growth boundaries, which designate where a city can and cannot develop, by safeguarding adjacent unincorporated lands.
In addition to protecting green zones between communities from sprawl, community separators preserve farmlands, waterways, drinking water, groundwater recharge areas, wildlife corridors, water quality, hillsides, woodlands, and much more.
Greenbelt Alliance and other conservation organizations are advocating for enhancement and strengthening of our community separators, reminding us that. urgent needs for housing can be met within the footprint of our towns and cities.
Thanks to Greenbelt Alliance’s blog for sharing this article! If you’d like to get involved in the campaign, contact Teri Shore at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2009 we moved our family of 5 from suburban San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles County) to rural Glen Ellen. This was not ‘flight from the city’ but a home-coming; a chance to move back onto the property where my husband grew up, bordering the SDC and Asbury Creek, in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain. Our property has been in the Lee family closing-in on 40 years, but the history is rich here, and previous owners included Vallejo, Chauvet, and Pagani. As I sit watching the clouds lick at the ridge of the Sonoma Mountain to our west or look up from our orchard to see how the sun is playing off Mt. Hood to the north, I think about the other folks who have occupied this flank of the mountain, looking up from their work to those exact same views.
Our 5 acre parcel was once covered in vineyard, one of the oldest in the valley. If you ride on our mower you can still feel the undulating ghost of the grape rows under the blade. The vines are gone, but we are continuing the ag tradition from those early days of Chauvet and Pagani’s viticulture, morphing into vegetable gardening and animal husbandry passed down through my in-laws, and then expanded by our little family. What started as our ‘quaint’ desire to ‘get back to the land and grow our own food’, has blossomed over the past several years into a small family farm business. As Two Moon Family Farm, we sell eggs and produce to several local restaurants and at the farmer’s market (Kenwood Community Farmers Market). In addition we raise goats and the occasional turkeys and lamb for our own family. Our children understand where food comes from and we are carrying on the tradition of having a small homestead farm on the side of Sonoma Mountain.
It is amazing to live on an interface between the wilds of the mountain and the village of Glen Ellen. Our farm is surrounded by open, natural habitat. The wildlife we see every day is always a great form of entertainment for our long-time city friends when they come to visit ‘Camp Lee’. Out our window we’ve seen bobcats, jackrabbits, raccoons, quail, deer, skunk, ground squirrels, woodpeckers, turkey vultures, hawks, snakes, coyotes, etc… Currently we have three ‘families’ of wild turkeys wandering about- three hens with at least 10 chicks in tow. Steve has distinct memories of wild pig encounters while growing up here, although they have since been actively removed from the mountain. And, of course, there are mountain lions. Although we haven’t seen a cat directly, we know that they share this mountain with us, and we’ve seen the evidence of their behavior. Hikers on treks just up beyond our fence have reported them and we had a young goat taken by a lion early in our adventures, when we hadn’t yet fully secured our night-time penning situation. We love overlapping with the nature of this mountain even when predators ‘visit’ the farm.
It sometimes feels like a dream when I look up from my work in the garden to see the changing light on the hills and valleys on our side of the mountain. There is a sort of magic here. Just slightly up the hill to our north west is the ruin of Jack London’s Wolf House. I know he was drawn here by that same pulse. My husband knows almost every foot of this mountain, that he often refers to as ‘his backyard’. And it is…. but it is yours too…. with all of it’s history, wildlife, and magic.
Shannon and Steven Lee are trained marine scientists who have more recently taken on farming. They have numerous ‘jobs’ but are primarily science educators and researchers, respectively. They share the property with their three children, Steven’s parents, 10 goats, 20 hens, several roosters, and 2 barn cats.
Photography by Shannon Lee
This post is the first installment of the “Why I Love The Mountain” series of guest posts from local Sonoma residents on SonomaMountain.org – Thank you Shannon & Steven for your contribution and we encourage readers to like Two Moon Family Farm on Facebook and follow them on twitter at @TwoMoonFF
Consuming and serving local food has become the latest hallmark of good living. Here on Sonoma Mountain many of us take pride in knowing the names of the farmers we buy from. Growing numbers of consumers belong to CSAs (community supported agriculture organizations) and many more buy from farmers’ markets.
How affordable and sustainable is this locavore trend? Is it profitable for the farmers and ranchers? What is the future of locally produced commercial commodities from the mountain in our own backyard?
Many factors contribute to the viability of local food production in our region, especially on the mountain itself, but one tops the list.
“The high value of land is the most restricting factor for people to get started in small scale, diverse ag,” observed Balyn Rose, founder of Wild Rose Ranch, near Jacobs Ranch on the north west slope of the mountain. “There are other land-based challenges,” he added, “but with commitment and perseverance anyone could successfully farm on the mountain.”
Balyn and his partner Elli Hilmer live with his uncle on nine acres. They tend a one-acre garden, keep 59 chickens and two pigs. They plan to expand to mixed orchard, more garden and intensively managed livestock rotations. Balyn said, “We started this business with our passion for farming and a love of this land which has been in my family for three generations. Our goal is to create an economically viable farming business, providing nourishing food for the local community while respecting the health and beauty of the mountain.”
He added that they have been successful in the past four years but prospects for the future look challenging.
Their operation provides a sharp contrast to the majority of large scale farming operations on the mountain, which tend to be monocultures, usually vineyards, operated on an industrial scale, which can take advantage of the mineral-rich volcanic soils of the mountain and the still relatively high value of wine grapes.
According to another small farmer, Nick Rupiper, who raises rabbits, laying hens and pigs to the west of the mountain, regarding the future of his type of operation: “I would like to think that it will grow, but as vineyards get bigger and dairies dry up, it’s hard to imagine that this style of ag production will flourish in Sonoma. There is a demand in the Bay Area for good, clean food but Sonoma is too wine oriented to become the next Yolo or Capay Valley (where there are many small farms, many organic/ sustainable). In general though, I do think that consumers are becoming more concerned where there food comes from, thus creating a demand for smaller farms. If the diseases and pollution of factory farms keep making headlines more and more people will turn to their local farmer.”
The Williamson Act, which provides property tax relief for owners who farm their land, has been placed on moratorium due to the state funding crisis. (The county distributes the tax relief, but depends on reimbursement from the state to manage the program.) The tax break contributes greatly to larger holdings. Grazing for cattle, sheep and goats takes up at least a few thousand acres of the mountain and helps to meet the demand for locally raised, grass-fed meat.
Dr. Gene Harlan, a veterinarian who leases 200 acres on the mountain for grazing, estimates he sells 20 to 30 percent of his annual beef production for local consumption. He too, expressed cautious optimism for the future. “A big concern is the Williamson Act. I’m growing and improving my stock; I have a long term plan.
My children and I do all the work on the herd. But will my children be able to rent this land and continue this tradition? It’s a big concern.”
As it is for all of us who want to see diversified agriculture remain a part of our life on the mountain.
When Jose Altimira traveled through Sonoma Valley in 1823, looking for a place to found a mission, he described Sonoma Mountain as “well-covered with trees fit for building a pueblo.” There were plenty of flat places on the valley floor to grow crops; the idea of farming the mountain probably never crossed his mind. Sixteen years later, General Vallejo established one of the first water-powered sawmills in California on what is now Asbury Creek in Glen Ellen, and the cutting of redwoods and Douglas fir began. It was common on the frontier for settlers to be close on the heels of the loggers, moving onto the freshly-cleared land. While the big trees were being harvested from the mountain, Charity and Coleman Asbury and their two year-old daughter Virginia began making their way west from Missouri by wagon. Arriving in Sonoma, they found the best land on the valley floor already claimed.
Looking at their options, they must have considered whether they could make a go of it on more marginal land. In the fall of 1850 they purchased 640 acres on the side of Sonoma Mountain from General Vallejo for $3500. The property encompassed what became the upper part of the original Developmental Center property, running all the way to the top of the ridge.
Over the next two years, their family grew to three children and members of their extended family had migrated west to join them. Coleman’s brother joined them and “worked in redwood” nearby. Charity’s siblings and parents also lived on the mountain.
Coleman and Charity’s farm had four milk cows, three head of cattle, 20 chickens, and ten oxen. Oxen were the heavy machinery of the day; their brute force used for plowing fields, pulling wagons, and hauling sections of big redwoods to the mill.
They likely used them to plow the five acres they had under cultivation, where they grew corn, wheat, potatoes and onions. Their neighbors were also growing hay and raising hogs.
Elsewhere on the mountain, logging continued until about 1856, when the sawmill was converted to a grist mill. After 1852, the Asburys mysteriously disappear from the record. Were they were visited by disease or some other catastrophe? Did they give up farming the mountain because it was just too hard? All that’s left is their name on the creek that drains their old homestead. By 1867, their property appears to have been abandoned, with no legal owner. Eventually, William McPherson Hill took over the land and sold it to the State of California in 1890.
Wresting a living from the side of Sonoma Mountain was tough. Farming probably provided a subsistence living in better years and something less in harder times. Milo Shepard, grand nephew and heir to Jack London’s Ranch described these early settlers as mostly Scotch-Irish, similar in heritage to the people who settled the southern Appalachians.
Among them were the Cowans, whose homestead included Cowan Meadow (now in Jack London State Park) in the 1850s. Some locals still remember Hazen Cowan, who was Jack London’s foreman and still around in the early 1970s. His brother Norman was a rodeo rider. During one competition, Norman broke his leg. Unwilling to accept defeat, he spent the night in an ice house with his leg between two blocks of ice and went on to win the finals. But even the Cowans were ultimately unable to make a go of homesteading. Scrambling to feed themselves during the depression of the 1880s, they hunted out the last deer and finally had to
abandon their place on the mountain.
There were exceptions to this pattern. Descendants of ‘Redwood’ Thompson still live on land he homesteaded in the 1850s, along what is now Sonoma Mountain Road. Just to the south, wine merchants Kohler and Frohling started a commercial
vineyard in the 1850s; that land is still in grapes.
But most early settlers were eventually defeated in their attempts to farm the mountain. As Jack London described it: “most of the ranchers were poor and hopeless; no one could make any money there, they told me. They had worked the land out and their only hope was to move on somewhere else. . .” These “farmers of the old school” had “lost their money, broken their hearts, lost their land.”
London pieced together his beauty ranch from a half-dozen bankrupt farms and set to work, “rebuilding worn-out hillside lands that were worked out and destroyed by our wasteful California pioneer farmers.”
During his brief years on the mountain, London experimented with many crops, growing hay, grapes, and eucalyptus, raising pigs, horses and cattle. Recognizing that the volcanic soil was delicate and prone to erosion, he built terraces to keep it from washing away. He knew that finding the right practices and the right crops
were essential to keeping his ranch going in the long run.
Since his death almost a century ago, London’s family has carried forward his vision, carefully working within the limits of the land. Likewise, some of “Redwood” Thompson’s descendants still live on the family’s mountain
homestead. The land where Kohler and Frohling planted their vineyard is still in grapes. Some kinds of success can be measured only over the course of generations. Where others moved on in broken-hearted defeat, a few have managed to make the mountain a true home.
Arthur Dawson has long had a keen interest in ‘the story of the land. He has served as historical ecologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center for over ten years and is the author of several books, including ‘The Stories Behind Sonoma Valley Place Names, a local bestseller. He can see Sonoma Mountain daily from his home in Glen Ellen, but has never quite been to the top.