Commentary: We are in this together
by Reuben Weinzveg
The week after the fires, when the full catastrophe was evident, I remarked to friends that this event was a game changer and that for our remaining lives, we would mark life in Sonoma County, “before the fire, and after the fire.”
A few weeks later, while driving up Parker Hill Road on an errand, we saw the devastation up close on that hidden stretch of road, and my wife and I broke into tears.
I’ve realized how all our hearts are broken. This fire has impacted not only those who lost everything, but this tragedy has cut a deep scar into our entire community. Although the community response has been fantastic, there is a tendency to be reactive, rather than mindful of unintended consequences.
We are now beginning to realize the long-term impacts on all of our lives. Our once-booming economy has been put on pause, and decisions made now will determine the future of our county.
Prior to the fire, the county permitted nearly 500 wineries and tasting rooms, versus the 239 facilities projected by the year 2020 by the general plan. Meanwhile, last year, over 80 percent of voters sent a clear message that we want protective measures and more balanced growth defined by urban growth boundaries and community separators.
But now, the landscape has changed, literally. Post-fire, homelessness has spiked, financial desperation is more visible, families and workers are at risk of leaving, and businesses we loved and patronized are gone or hurting. Our wine community has been negatively impacted — as have our restaurant and retail communities.
Realtors are pushing county officials to pass exemptions to laws that protect our agricultural lands. Meanwhile, conservationists worry about watersheds and erosion, toxics degrading creeks and further loss of fish and wildlife.
The presence of vineyards truly did arrest the fire; yet party event centers did not provide firebreaks, only cash infusions at the expense of neighborhoods and existing family wineries. It is time for all of us to ask our Board of Supervisors to adhere to our carefully considered general plan when permitting more event centers or additional uses that add more commercial activities to our agricultural lands.
At this critical time, approving new event centers and tasting rooms will only compound the competition for the 500 county-based wineries, as well as our city-based wineries, and delay the recovery and survival of existing businesses. Additionally, approving daily food service at wineries takes business from our in-town restaurants.
Creating even more competition for existing business does not help anyone. It’s time for all of us to come together to support our already established wineries and help them survive the downturn and rebuild.
Tourism and food service businesses have been severely impacted, our communities have been devastated, our hearts have been broken, our treasury has been robbed, our tax base has been undermined and the native ecosystem has been challenged.
Now is the time to see that we must come up with strategies and solutions that recognize the rights of all in this process of rebuilding. Compassion and consideration are more in order than the “us versus them” arguments that we have been subjected to in the past. We are truly all in this together. There is no “other.”
Reuben Weinzveg is a Sebastopol resident and the treasurer of Preserve Rural Sonoma County.