Top stories of 2020
The aftermath of the fire at Triple T Ranch and Farm on Melita Road.
Fire burns through area2020 was another year of fire stress and disaster, buffeting residents who have endured more than their fair share of pain and misery the last three years
So far this year, California has seen over 9,000 wildfire incidents, according to Cal Fire. Fire season in California is starting earlier and ending later, driven by climate change, the culprit behind warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and increasingly dry conditions overall.
Close to home this summer, residents had to worry about lightning. In August, lightning strikes across numerous counties, including Sonoma and Napa, burned over 360,000 acres, destroying 1,491 structures.
On Sept. 27, the Glass Fire started near St. Helena in Napa County, and moved quickly into Sonoma County, making its way into parts of Oakmont and Kenwood.
308 homes were destroyed in Napa County.
In Sonoma County, 334 single family residences were destroyed, 80 damaged, and 253 other structures incinerated in the areas of St. Helena Road, Skyhawk in Rincon Valley, Los Alamos Road, Melita Road, Oakmont, Sonoma Highway, Pythian Road, and Adobe Canyon Road.
The Glass Fire burned over 67,000 acres, according to Cal Fire.
Once again, our first responders were asked to operate in difficult conditions and worked valiantly to contain the fires. Most notably, they prevented the fire from sweeping into the Oakmont community and its 3,200-plus homes. Only three single-family homes and one triplex near the highway were destroyed.
Local parks took another fire hit this year. At Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, about 75 percent of its 4,900 acres burned. The one structure lost was the iconic Red Barn. At Hood Mountain Regional Park, 80 percent of its 2,000 acres burned to some degree. Clean-up efforts at both parks started immediately after the fire, with park officials confident that, as in previous fires, the natural landscapes will restore themselves in time.
Unlike in 2017 when the community was caught by surprise by fierce wildfires, extensive planning was in place this time for residents to receive evacuation warnings and, if necessary, evacuation orders. Fire agencies of all stripes were as organized and prepared as they could possibly have been, and were successful in many of their plans to attack the fire.
Perhaps with fire season lasting longer and longer, that's the most we can hope for.
Impacts of COVID-19
Not that we were looking for anything else to worry about, but along came a deadly worldwide pandemic to turn everything upside down.
Sonoma County is a microcosm of experiences in the rest of the state and country, as residents grappled to deal with a disaster they couldn't see, but was there nonetheless.
In Sonoma County to date, there have been a total of 13,912 cases, which represent 2.7 percent of the county's population. 10,901 have recovered (77 percent of cases), and there have been 162 deaths (1.2 percent of cases.)
The closing down of much of the normal day-to-day activity has taken a toll.
Businesses in Oakmont, Glen Ellen and Kenwood have been on the edge since March, trying to survive financially and adapt to the many rules the county has imposed to fight the spread of the virus.
Wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and other service-oriented businesses have been hit especially hard. While many applied for federal aid at the beginning, for some, that money is long gone. Endless county and state rules keep coming, and further restrictions were imposed Dec. 12.
There have been layoffs, cutbacks, and extra money spent on items required to protect patrons. Perhaps most significant for Sonoma Valley has been the big drop-off in tourism, the lifeblood of many local businesses for much of the year.
Kenwood Elementary School and Dunbar Elementary School have been in online learning mode since last spring, with administrators, teachers and staff trying to make the best of an impossible situation. The impact has been large on parents as well, who now have their kids at home during the school day. And of course, the long-range educational impact on children remains to be seen.
Many non-profit organizations in Sonoma Valley, often considered the fabric keeping communities together, have been hit hard. Important fundraising events have been canceled again and again, and general donations have suffered, leaving some programs strapped for cash.
While light at the end of the tunnel is apparent with a vaccine on the way, the lasting effects of COVID will be around for some time.
Homeless shelter remains
At the beginning of the year, a homeless shelter, known as Los Guilicos Village (LGV), was built by Sonoma County off of Pythian Road across from Oakmont. At first, it was seen as a temporary emergency solution to house some of the homeless moved off a huge encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.
In January the Board of Supervisors, over the objection of First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, hurriedly approved LGV and its 60 pallet-type structures. Many Oakmonters were adamantly opposed, complaining that they had no chance for input. A number of them expressed concern about the site's lack of proximity to services, security issues, and increased chance of fire in a wildfire prone area.
Other Oakmonters organized and signed up to volunteer at the shelter, helping serve food, collecting donations of basic necessities, and more.
The original plan was for LGC to remain open until April 30 of 2020, after which the residents would be moved to other housing facilities.
But then the pandemic hit, and the county had to pivot to address a dire new emergency.
LGV continued operating, and in July, the Board of Supervisors continued their conversation about the future of LGV. Supervisor Gorin tried to push her colleagues to set a 'for certain' date for closure, but the other supervisors declined to do so, citing the need for every bed during a pandemic of unknown length.
Then, in late September, the Glass Fire hit, forcing LGV residents to evacuate for over a month. A few of the pallet homes were destroyed.
St. Vincent de Paul, the non-profit operating LGV, has had its contract extended through April 30 of 2021, according the organization's executive director, Jack Tibbets. It is not known what will happen to LGV after that.
Tibbets said that there are currently 50 residents living at LGV. During its operation, 50 residents have been able to be placed in a permanent housing situation, representing a 30 percent permanent housing success rate.
Susan Chauncy, who sits on Oakmont's LGV shelter committee, said she has been pleased with the operations of the homeless shelter, but remains “disappointed that the Board of Supervisors chose this costly, distant site originally, and they chose to repopulate it after the fires.”
SDC planning gets underway despite pandemicThe process of disposing of the Sonoma Developmental Center's 945 acres of open space and buildings got underway in 2020, with the selection of Oakland-based planning consultants Dyett & Bhatia to spearhead development of a Specific Plan and the formation of a 15-person Planning Advisory Team (PAT) in January, some three months behind the original schedule. That schedule sets the end of 2021 as the target date for a completed plan for disposing of the state-owned assets at the site.
The PAT consists of 15 people with strong backgrounds in fields associated with the project needs, including urban planning, real estate development, real estate management, history of similar planning, land use and environmental planning, community organizing, and several people from local groups that have been working on the SDC transition for many years.
Glen Ellen resident and author Tracy Salcedo managed to lead a campus walk in February to familiarize people with the built up areas of SDC - before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public meetings, derailing plans underway to obtain extensive public input through workshops and other meetings.
By mid-year, ideas were being discussed for having the main administration building declared an historical asset and potential museum and/or library. May and June public meetings were cancelled due to the pandemic, and D&B consultant Emmanuel Ursu replaced Milan Nevajda, who left for personal reasons.
A September report from the county to the State Department of General Services, which manages the transition, suggested that meeting the state's timeline may be difficult, given the COVID pandemic. It also outlined problems reaching out to Spanish-speaking and lower-income members of the community as required by state rules.
Over 200 people signed into a virtual community workshop on Nov. 1, temporarily overwhelming the technical capacity that provided an opportunity for attendees to join smaller work groups to ponder a vision for the specific plan.
Three alternative scenarios for the future will be developed, one of which will be selected by early next year for an Environmental Impact Report, with completion still set for the end of 2021.
Resort property sold, againA sale was completed in August of a 186-acre resort development in Kenwood, a new chapter for a project that was first approved by the county in 2004.
Los Angeles-based private equity and venture capital firm Yucaipa Companies purchased a total of 19 parcels for an undisclosed sum from Tohigh Property Investment, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings. Tohigh had paid over $40 million to a previous developer in 2014.
The properties are located on what was once known as the Graywood Ranch, off of Sonoma Highway across from the Lawndale Road intersection.
Back in 2004, the county Board of Supervisors approved an area of the land for a 50-room inn on a hillside below Hood Mountain, over 10 residential lots, and a 10,000-case winery on the valley floor. None of this has ever been built, though a design of the inn was finally approved in 2018 - 50 rooms, spa, restaurant, and 102 parking spaces on a 52-acre parcel.
During the Glass Fire in September, there was extensive damage to vegetation in that area.
“Since the Glass Fire, our team has been actively working with Cal Fire and local resources to ensure the site is safe and clear all trees damaged from the devastating fire,” said Frank Quintero, a principal with Yucaipa Companies.
Yucaipa created Kenwood Ranch LLC, as the legal ownership entity.
Another new operator for Oakmont golf courses
Things were looking up for golf in Oakmont at the beginning of the year as the Oakmont Village Association (OVA) board of directors had secured funding to purchase the two golf courses and associated restaurant and other facilities - 250 acres of green space in the heart of the community.
In 2019, the previous owner, the Oakmont Golf Club (OGC), was headed toward insolvency. The OVA board decided to try to purchase the golf courses, and received the support from Oakmont residents when they overwhelmingly voted for a homeowner dues increase to set the wheels in motion for Oakmont ownership.
After the $3.7 million purchase was completed with the OGC, OVA signed a 20-year agreement with Advance Golf Partners (AGP) to run the golf and restaurant operations. Work began on the golf courses and remodeling of the pro shop and other facilities.
Things were going fine until COVID-19 hit.
Then, in July, with little explanation, AGP suddenly announced they were pulling out of the lease with the OVA. In August, AGP president Larry Galloway explained that the pandemic delayed an expected March opening of the golf courses, permits to renovate the clubhouse couldn't be obtained, and all maintenance restoration efforts had to cease.
Contingency and start-up cash, as well as $250,000 in federal COVID-related Paycheck Protection Program funds, were all gone.
The entity AGP created to run the golf courses, AGP 2, subsequently declared bankruptcy.
OVA then entered into negotiations with new potential operators, eventually deciding on Petaluma-based CourseCo. As part of the deal, CourseCo, which operates a number of golf clubs in the Bay Area, agreed to a 10-year lease and to spend $1 million on club improvements in the first three years of the contract.
Three Valley fire districts combine, Kenwood not included
The fire districts of Glen Ellen, Mayacamas and Valley of the Moon merged this year in a process of consolidating the county's multitudinous independent fire districts to face the ever-growing complexity and costs of managing fire and emergency services in light of warming weather, drought, and the consequences of a century of “Smokey the Bear” policies of extinguishing all wildland fires.
Kenwood Fire Protection District (KFPD)was not able to join in the merger because of a $700,000 deficit in salary levels from the merging districts, having the dubious honor of being the lowest-paying fire district in the county. That deficit will soon be erased, according to Fire Chief Daren Bellach, but it is still not clear when or even if KFPD will join a future merger.
The long push to consolidate the county's many independent fire departments took on new momentum after Sonoma County wildfires destroyed over 5,500 homes, including 374 in Kenwood and Glen Ellen, and threatened thousands more throughout Sonoma Valley in October of 2017.
Even so, continuing mistrust of county fire administration has kept many rural fire departments at arm's length from the consolidation process. Schell-Vista Fire District opted out of the process, having just increased its local fire assessment. The City of Sonoma declined to engage since its City Council has not reviewed the issue.
The new Sonoma Valley Fire District, under the leadership of Chief Steve Akre, was formed after an extensive examination and approval by the county's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Valley of the Moon FD was the largest of the three, even without the partnership of the City of Sonoma. Glen Ellen FD is less than half the size of VOMFD, and Mayacamas VFD is less than half the size of Glen Ellen, yet all three offer mutual support and complimentary fire services.
The emerging Sonoma Valley Fire District staffing consists of a fire chief, four division chiefs, 10 captains, 15 engineers, 37 part-time firefighters, six full-time EMS employees, 26 part-time EMS employees and four clerical staff. LAFCO found the consolidation to be in the best interests of each district's constituents. A very small percentage of voters in each district objected to the consolidation, which was approved and consummated on June 1.
SDC closure impacts Valley's emergency water suppliesThe state's decision to close the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) has impacted the Sonoma Valley's emergency water supply, since the SDC's water filtration plant was shuttered in the face of impending sanctions for not having a qualified engineer overseeing the aging plant, which needs extensive upgrades to meet water safety standards.
Sonoma County's 2018 and 2019 Grand Juries took a long look at Sonoma Valley's emergency water situation and didn't like what they saw. Contrary to county and local water agencies' assertions that the existing water system could supply three days of drinking water in a disaster, the Grand Jury concluded, “In the event of a major earthquake, some or all of the people in Sonoma County could be faced with poor water quality and with water shortages ranging from brief interruptions and rationing, to complete curtailment for extended periods.”
Over 80 percent of the drinking water for the City of Sonoma and the dense communities surrounding it is piped in from the Russian River via the Sonoma Aqueduct that roughly parallels Highway 12.
Since 2002, the Valley of the Moon Water District (VOMWD) has relied on being able to tap the SDC's drinkable water in emergencies, but that backup evaporated with the filtration plant's closure in 2018. “It was the only source of emergency water available in the valley,” former VOMWD manager Alan Gardner said.
Private and public wells are vulnerable to earthquakes, as is the aqueduct itself, and while there are plans to increase water storage in the Valley, none have been built yet. Plans are underway to remedy the problem, but as Sonoma County Water director Jay Jaspers said last March, “You can reduce risk,” but you can't eliminate it entirely.
The Rodgers Creek Fault lies east of the San Andreas Fault, which is the main strand of the North American-Pacific Plate boundary north of San Francisco Bay, according to U.S. Geological Survey. The fault runs right through Sonoma County, with recently identified parts of the fault zone extending toward the Bennett Valley-Mayacamas fault system to the east.
A complete seismological survey of the county water system in 2000 revealed a number of weaknesses, Jaspers said. That survey was updated in 2008 and again in 2013 and Jaspers is pushing to bring those same people back to apply a decade's worth of new technology and methodology to the county's needs. The original study showed that some of the pipes crossing creeks could be sheared and displaced up to three feet, laterally.
The 2019 Grand Jury called for all agencies concerned with Sonoma Valley's emergency water needs to better coordinate their communications, plans and efforts going forward, including those responsible for developing a Specific Plan for the Sonoma Developmental Center's disposition. All the agencies tasked with solving these issues agreed that restarting the SDC water filtration plant any time soon is not practicable.
County-wide fire tax fails in MarchVoters in the March Primary failed to pass a sales tax that would have funded most of Sonoma County's fire services for the foreseeable future. On Nov. 3, however, county voters approved five out of six tax measures on the ballot, leaving politicians and supporters wondering what went wrong with the spring fire tax measure.
The Sonoma County Wildfire Prevention, Emergency Alert and Response Transactions and Use Tax Ordinance - designated Measure G on the March 3 ballot - would have imposed a half-cent sales tax throughout the county for an indefinite period of time. Ninety percent of the taxes would go to the various fire districts and 10 percent to the county.
The allocation plan included in the measure would have added 200 paid firefighters and emergency techs to bring all county fire departments' emergency vehicles up to the recommended three-person staffing every time a unit is dispatched. Measure G money - estimated at $51 million a year - would have funded new fire stations, repaired older ones, and paid for fire prevention and vegetation management.
Language in the first tax draft aimed at pushing districts to consolidate angered some district chiefs and directors. It was modified to allow longer periods for considering mergers.
Kenwood Fire Protection District (KFPD) did not consolidate with Glen Ellen, Valley of the Moon and Mayacamas districts last year because they had a $700,000 deficit in the payroll department to bring their pay up to par with the other agencies involved. Merging fire districts must be on equal financial footing. Measure G would have solved that problem. KFPD would have received $1 million from the first distribution, while the Valley of the Moon, Glen Ellen and Mayacamas departments, that consolidated later in the year, would have received over $2.2 million.
Many people noted that the measure received tepid support from the fire fighting community, support that appeared only in the last weeks of the campaign. Voters were kinder to the fire measure with 62 percent support (67 percent needed to pass), than they were to an early extension of a SMART rail funding tax and school bonds, both of which failed by large margins.
The loss left the county, city and fire fighting agencies in unincorporated Sonoma County still on the hook to work out better, more efficient ways to survive in the face of rising temperatures, lack of rain, explosively dry wild lands and denser development everywhere that culminated in another horrendous fire season for the county's disaster-weary residents.
New park campfire proposal generates local heat
Given the recent history of wildfires in Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley, a proposed new campsite at the top of Sonoma Mountain, complete with 6-8 sites and campfire pits has alarmed a number of people living near the county's newest park, North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park (NSMRP). It is the terminus of a trail that originates in Jack London State Historic Park, open to hikers, horses and anyone with an ambition to traverse the ridge of the county's eponymous mountain, a trail that offers spectacular views of the Bay Area and Santa Rosa and the valleys on either side.
On the county's books since 2014, the park was in the process of public review and policy development in 2017 when wildfires brought county government to an abrupt stop. Wildfire recovery has gummed up many county processes, exacerbated by the pandemic and more recent extensive burning throughout the county.
The NSMRP encompasses 820 acres of mountain ridge line between Jack London State Historic Park and its direct entrance and parking lot near the summit of narrow, potholed Sonoma Mountain Road. The three alternative scenarios proposed in 2017 ranged from no fires, supervised fires at six campsites, and supervised fires at four campsites.
The new park is a mash-up of several properties acquired by the tax-funded Open Space District in 2014 and subsequently transferred to the county park system. They include the former Jacobs Ranch, Cooper's Grove, Sonoma Mountain Woodland, Wilroth, Skiles and Sonoma Mountain Ranch properties. It shares borders with Jack London State Park and the Fairfield Osborn Preserve. According to Regional Parks, the conservation easement allows building and camping development within defined areas.
Local residents were startled when the county's park department recently scheduled a long-delayed public hearing to select a plan and put it out for an Environmental Impact Report before final adoption. With the sheer number of residents objecting to any fires in the area, county parks extended the comment period from Oct. 30 to Nov. 15. The issues will be discussed at a public meeting early next year and whatever is proposed must come before the county's Board of Supervisors.
North Valley Municipal Advisory Council formed
The newest advisory body to the Board of Supervisors was formed this year with the creation of the North Valley Municipal Advisory Council (NVMAC), consisting of seven people appointed by First District Supervisor Susan Gorin to provide information, advice and generally stay in tune with the people and issues affecting Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Eldridge. The council will provide a double function: listening to citizens and actively presenting information through regular monthly meetings, set for the second Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m.
Eventually, public meetings will be held in either Glen Ellen or Kenwood, but for now, all meetings are virtual.
Municipal Advisory Councils are created by county governments to serve a variety of purposes. Sonoma County's first MAC was the public entity responsible for forming the City of Windsor. Others have concentrated on topical and geographical issues. A Springs MAC was formed at the beginning of the year to cope with emerging issues of the tightly packed communities surrounding the City of Sonoma.
The NVMAC membership consists of two Glen Ellen members and one alternate, two Kenwood members and one alternate, one member of the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Council, and two at-large members to represent Kenwood, Glen Ellen, and Eldridge on the council. Some members may fulfill more than one of these requirements.
Arielle Kubu-Jones of Gorin's staff will be the principal liaison for the Council. She can be reached at Arielle.firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the new MAC can be found online at sonomacounty.ca.gov/North-Valley-Municipal-Advisory-Council/.
Writer and historical ecologist Arthur Dawson of Glen was picked by Gorin to be the first Chair. He has lived in Glen Ellen since 1989. His wife Jill grew up here, and their children attended Dunbar and Kenwood Schools. Dawson has served on the boards of several local organizations and is deeply connected to this community and the land.
Long-time Kenwood resident Daymon Doss was picked as Vice-Chair. He has over 40 years' experience in healthcare throughout Northern California, last serving as the Chief Operations Officer for the Petaluma Health Center (serving 36,000 patients in Petaluma and Rohnert Park). He is currently president of the Valley of the Moon Rotary, president of the Kenwood Fire Protection Board, and a board member of the Housing Land Trust. He and his wife Sally are active members of the Kenwood Community Church.
All board members were profiled in the Sept. 1, 2020 Kenwood Press.
NVMAC meetings are open to the public via Zoom. You can sign up at the NVMAC website as well as see the current agenda at www.sonomacounty.ca.gov/North-Valley-Municipal-Advisory-Council/.