(Reprinted from Sonoma West Times and News)

COMMENTARY: Walking the land

by Shepherd Bliss [a Waccovian!]
One wet Saturday morning and the following dry Monday during the last week of the coldest March in recent memory, two groups of Sebastopudlians walked the Northeast Area. The in-town meanders were organized by retired Coastwalk Executive Director Richard Nichols.

“This is very simple,” Nichols noted as we stood in the car-surrounded Plaza. “My agenda is to walk and see what is there. Walking is a wonderful way to experience things and relax. You can get a feel for what could happen.”

Indeed, I've heard this potential redevelopment discussed for years, but the two walks grounded this sometimes abstract conversations. After living in Sebastopol for most of the last 15 years, I thought I knew it pretty well. The walks revealed how much more I could learn. Much of the area in question appears blighted, but interesting, creative, and innovative - as well as profitable - things already happen there. Some of the walkways that appear to be alleys are, in fact, streets.

Businesspeople, environmentalists, builders, co-housing and senior housing residents, farmers, and both advocates and critics of the proposed redevelopment joined each other for the pleasant, nonpartisan strolls. Though invited, none of the property owners came. Mayor Sarah Gurney, who can often be seen riding her bike on the trails at one edge of the area, was the only elected official or City staff member among the some two dozen people on the two hikes.

We sauntered by the old lumberyard, now owned by Ron Basso. We came to an industrial section owned by Ben Welborn and Barney Aldridge, who have been acquiring property in the area, specifically the old Barlow apple plant. We made it to Morris Street, which borders the Laguna de Santa Rosa. We crossed Highway 12 and rambled through the auto row.

The discussions were cordial, informative and educational exchanges, including different ideas of what should happen. Among the options discussed were expanding light industry, adding more residences, retail stores, a community garden and a full-time farmers' market. The hike became a study in the history of Sebastopol. For example, the Laguna was degraded for decades by being a dump, retired school administrator Bob Evans pointed out.

“The town will change,” Mayor Gurney noted. “Walking is our big thing,” noted Burbank Heights and Orchard senior apartments resident Robert Roberts, 68. “We want pedestrian paths here.”

“We need a transition from industrial to green commercial businesses,” commented Michael Presley, who has worked for Taylor Maid Farms in that area for the last 10 years. “This zone needs help. It needs regeneration. Let's find some solutions.”

“Sebastopol has become a drive-through community,” Maggie Howe contended. “I'm excited about re-vitalizing this area. The developers have hired smart growth and new urbanism builders.” Howe has signed on to work with the developers to create “a livable, viable, workable downtown.”

Not everyone is as excited by the idea of developing the area, part of which is in a flood plain. “Flooding in this area is getting worse, due to development,” according to geologist Jane Nielsen. “We need to discourage people from building near the 100-year flood level.” Nielsen advocates a careful water study of the area before development proceeds.

If you want to have concrete, practical input in the ongoing planning process, in addition to attending meetings (April 1 at the Community Church), perhaps a walk or more in the area - especially with others who might have different visions - would be appropriate.

- Shepherd Bliss is a Sebastopol area resident