In the Fifth District, we’ve been talking a lot about carrying capacity these days. Our office defines carrying capacity as the maximum number of visitors that a site can satisfy at one time. In rural areas like west county, we like to break that into smaller categories, looking into the environmental carrying capacity (the maximum number of visitors a place can satisfy before the local environment becomes damaged) and the perceptual carrying capacity (the maximum number of visitors a place can satisfy before specific groups consider the level of impact to be excessive).

Lynda Hopkins column photo

I think if you survey any west county resident, they’ll likely tell you we’re nearing, have reached or have far exceeded the area’s carrying capacity — especially during summer, when tourists seek respite from summertime heat, and especially along the river and coast.

The Fifth District is home to the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River, where millions of tourists (both local and not) visit every year. In addition to river dipping and beach bathing opportunities, our hamlets are home to local parades, parties and fundraisers. And in addition to our local, community-oriented events, west county hosts bicycle races, marathons, triathlons and more. The Fifth District gains national attention every year with the Bohemian Grove and Levi’s Gran Fondo.

It’s a lot. According to the Economic Development Bureau’s 2017 Tourism Report, more of Sonoma County’s tourism-related business occurred in unincorporated Sonoma County (25 percent) than in any individual city. Unincorporated Sonoma County generated 43 percent of the Transient Occupancy Tax (hotel bed tax) in the county — while the county’s nine cities generated 57 percent. Tourist hot spots represented by respondents in an EDB survey include the coastal unincorporated towns of Bodega Bay, Jenner and The Sea Ranch. In other words, the annual report validated what many west county residents feel and know: the Fifth District is a magnet for tourism of all sorts. It’s an essential, fundamental driver of our economy — but it’s also important to acknowledge and address the impacts of visitors.

In addition to tourism’s impact, there’s the everyday, local impact we make as residents. Whether we’re driving to and from Santa Rosa, throwing birthday parties at the park, dropping our kids off at school, hosting visitors in our homes or anything in between, our daily/weekly/monthly activities eat away at our area’s carrying capacity. Due to the increasing cost of housing, many people who work in unincorporated west county towns can no longer afford to live in them — and sometimes commute from other counties to work along the coast or river. Between locals and tourists, we’re all adding to west county’s capability to absorb impacts to our environment, infrastructure, housing capacity, traffic, fire and emergency services and overall quality of life.

So, what do we do?

I can sit and lobby my fellow colleagues until I’m blue in the face for extra money for west county, but I’m more successful when I have the community’s voice amplifying my own. The “It takes a village” adage is true; when Guerneville residents filled the Board of Supervisors’ chambers to tell my colleagues about the severity of homelessness in the Lower Russian River, they listened and directed an additional $1 million to alleviate homelessness in the area.

The power of a unified voice is not to be discounted. That’s why our office has been working to create municipal advisory councils (MACs) for both the Lower Russian River area and the Sonoma County coast. The two MACs will give each area a unified voice that will help my colleagues truly understand the issues faced by our rural communities and residents… and, hopefully, support solutions to those challenges.

The MACs will be able to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on myriad issues, from road work prioritization and pedestrian safety enhancement projects to how to best spend tourism occupancy tax (TOT) funds and mitigate tourism impacts. And while ‘making recommendations’ may sound soft and without authority, it’s actually not. The Board of Supervisors, which approves the formation of the MACs, will listen to and respect a unified board of community members who represent the entire lower river or coastal area.

I’m looking forward to our MACs kicking off early next year. We have quite a lot of work ahead of us through the rest of 2018 to form the structure, select representatives and conduct training. To stay in touch and learn about the status of the MACs, sign up for our newsletter by emailing amie.windsor@sonoma-county.org.

Lynda Hopkins is the Fifth District Supervisor and a Forestville resident. She can be reached at Lynda.hopkins@sonoma-county.org.

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