A sense of place

December 3, 2009

Our neighbor, Rohnert Park, is considering a development on the old Agilent site, a sprawling 200 acre former business campus that was set down amidst the hay fields 25 years ago originally as Hewlett-Packard. I remember feeling alarmed and powerless when it was being built near our place. The floodgates had been opened, our idyllic property, 5 minutes from town but surrounded by grasslands and open space was doomed it seemed. Nothing much came of it then. A high-tech campus is a pretty quiet one and the empty buildings that remained after Agilent left proved to be sentinels that kept Rohnert Park’s hunger for expansion at bay. Until now.

Over the last few years the property was bought by local developers, now cloaked in green, and plans were rolled out touting an out-sized development as a lofty experiment in “New Urbanism”. There are plans for almost 2,000 homes, hundreds of business offices, restaurants, a fitness center, a grocery store and more. In other words, in an agricultural area surrounded by properties like ours that are zoned for low-density residential/agricultural; an area of federally protected habitat for the endangered California Tiger Salamander and disappearing wetlands; an area that struggles with enough water to serve the needs of the homes and businesses already here, a new town, re-zoned for high-density residential is to be built. At the same time, we couldn’t build another barn on our 3 acres without the equivalent of an act of Congress.

To be sure, “New Urbanism” is a laudable concept. Environmentalists are falling all over themselves to endorse Sonoma Mountain Village. But this is the wrong place.

Despite vehement protests, Cotati has just approved 62 new homes on a 10 acre parcel to the west of us. These developments are 2 handles of a vice grip that’s squeezing our rural neighborhood into a smaller and smaller space. At this rate we may be living in an historical park one day. “This is how people used to live before the sprawl,” they’ll say. “Isn’t it quaint?”

On satellite maps in the Draft Environmental Impact Report, the edge of our property is visible to the west of the project. It’s dismissed, along with the farms and ranches that surround it as “…a semi-rural area with no…sense of place.” This is how developers view our home.

As I look over the fields, the Willow on the eastern boundary of our property is a dark green impression against the thick morning fog. Goldfinches perch on the spindly upper branches, then let go and fall like acrobats on a high wire without a net, swoop up before they touch the ground and disappear among the yellowing leaves. The fields are brown and hard-packed now, but with the first rains the nascent grasses and wildflowers will push through the adobe soil once again and another cycle of life and death will begin.

Acorns hunker down, waiting for the winter rains and their chance to send up shoots in the spring. If the oaks weren’t mowed down and disked back into the soil every summer, they might take over these clear-cut fields and return this valley to its original splendor, the way I imagine it was when the first inhabitants lived here.

We cherish our 1920’s era property where we do a constant dance with the elements. What is to become of our home, our neighborhood, indeed, our planet when development like this tramps on through open space? Once it’s built, any chance of habitat recovery is gone forever. One need only look at the result of Rohnert Park’s planning decisions to see history in the process of repeating itself.

But today, a sense of home, of belonging, of history – indeed, a sense of place – reverberate through the crisp autumn morning in palpable waves.

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