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Hall Coalition in the News
Kids in the Hall
(Sonoma County Independent, 3/30/00)
movement grows in opposition to vineyard expansions
OPEN MIKE is such a powerful thing," says activist Kurt
Erickson, a member of the Town Hall Coalition, an ad hoc group
of west county residents who have taken local grape growers
to task over recent vineyard expansions. "People haven't
had a feeling they can at least have a voice in what happens
in this county.
Board of Supervisors, they're all higher than you--you have
to stand up at the podium with your butt to the audience. It's
a terrible format!"
the past six months, town hall meetings have popped up all over
the county. From Sonoma to Guerneville, Healdsburg to Penngrove,
local folks have been coming out of their houses on weekday
nights--even in the pouring rain--for hours of discussions on
issues that arouse strong opinions: groundwater, grapes, growth
and its consequences.
all this grassroots organizing been birthed by that mother of
all meetings, the Town Hall Coalition? Since its debut last
September, the THC has put a new face on rural democracy, with
e-mails flying from desktop to desktop and well-attended meetings
at which neighbors line up at the microphone to share their
THC began, supervisors' meetings on the controversial hillside
vineyard ordinance and proposed groundwater regulation have
been packed with vocal opponents, and articles about their concerns
have appeared in all the local newspapers.
the prosperous darlings of the Redwood Empire--the grape growers--have
found themselves on the defensive.
the THC has put a well-timed match to a smoldering heap of discontent.
THC participants are described as articulate and highly skilled,
and no one seems to doubt the sincerity of their commitment
to our shared future. In any case, it is clear that something
is happening here, and the real target is not the farmer, but
the exclusionary style of governance exemplified by the Board
Hamilton, the former mayor of Sebastopol and onetime community
organizer in South America, who with her husband, Don Frank,
started the big boulder that is the THC rolling downhill, compares
the situation in Sonoma County with a banana republic. She made
her intentions clear at the first meeting: "We should begin
to identify new candidates to run against these terrible supervisors--the
worst Board of Supervisors we have ever had--tonight."
Rosa City Councilwoman Noreen Evans, who recently failed in
her bid to unseat Supervisor Tim Smith, stepped up to bat in
time to get THC's full endorsement. She too wants to put the
brakes on growth.
Town Hall Coalition is really about inappropriate growth,"
Don Frank says. "Of course there's going to be growth--we're
still having babies and our children will need places to live.
But we've got a Board of Supervisors planning for more growth
when they haven't fixed the problems they've already got."
takes a fatherly attitude toward all the new grassroots organizations
that have sprung up throughout the county. He points to the
recent community meeting on the Russian River Redevelopment
Plan, held March 9 in Guerneville, as evidence of the THC's
influence. But activist Brenda Adelman, while voicing her approval
of the coalition's progress, is quick to note gently that people
on the Russian River have been organizing for 20 years.
been here a lot longer than the Town Hall Coalition," she
of the THC feel that they have provided "a catalyst for
things that are going on by giving a voice to concerns and suggesting
ways to become active," as Stephen Fuller-Rowell puts it.
He's been active on the THC water committee, which has succeeded
in pressuring the county to do a groundwater study to allay
fears that vineyards may be depleting the wells. Water is a
complex subject that is becoming increasingly urgent, he says,
"and nobody is monitoring this."
has been monitoring his own well on Furlong Lane and is now
offering instructions to others interested in the problem.
THC has been effective in other ways as well.
actually changed the semantics. Our words, like 'industrial
vineyards,' are showing up in the Press Democrat," Erickson
Kendall-Jackson has made big changes because of community concern."
he suggests that Kendall-Jackson decided to stop cutting vintage
oaks before the THC came into existence, Robert Hopkins, a Healdsburg
grape grower for 25 years, agrees that, thanks to the dialogue
and the new vineyard ordinance, "people are changing the
way they do things. There's more scrutiny by Fish and Game,
and many regulations that have been loosely enforced are getting
more attention now."
he'd like "all of us to really look at the science and
see what we can agree on."
what Nick Frey is looking for. As the executive director of
the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association, he is concerned
about a widening gap between growers and the public. He sees
a lot of emotion at the meetings and some "veiled or overt
threats" to turn people in to law enforcement without "talking
to your neighbor first."
comes from Iowa, where 60 percent of the land is used to cultivate
soybeans and corn, and no one has the money to worry about erosion
comparison, the things that are being done here are phenomenal--and
the residents think we're ruining the environment," he
wants to see a change in the tenor of the conversation. "I
think if we started relating to each other as people, as neighbors,
we might find those problems aren't as great as some of us think,"
KING of Penngrove has a great deal to say about the work of
his group, the Penngrove Area Plan Advisory Committee, which
put on their first town hall meeting this month. They are primarily
concerned about the potential threat to the water supply posed
by Rohnert Park's new expansion plans. But King hastens to say
"we are not affiliated in any way, shape, or form with
he did attend one meeting held in Sonoma and was very impressed
with the level of presentation. But, for him, it's not about
grapes, it's the water.
movement like this doesn't spring up out of nothing," says
Jerry Birnhaut, one of the leaders of the Sonoma Town Hall Coalition,
which came together five years ago to stop development near
Jack London State Park, and succeeded.
grapes are at the forefront.
feeling about land is a deeply emotional matter," he observes.
him, the issue comes down to "whether market forces are
going to control us and whether there's no opportunity for public
interest to have some say in the radical transformation of the
Abeles of the Community Alliance of Family Farmers feels that
the spotlight on the vineyard situation "gets into all
organic farmer, Abeles is worried that farmers who grow other
crops are "getting marginalized because they can't compete
county is changing," he says. "The rural character
is evolving, and a lot of people are concerned."
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