NR 2002-36
August 15, 2002

Contact: Carol Dahmen
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
Ed Wilson
(916) 323-1886


SACRAMENTO -- The pace of urbanization in Sonoma County from 1998-2000 increased compared to 1996-98, and a significant amount of land was reclassified from dryland agricultural uses to vineyards and other irrigated crops, according to a new map from the California Department of Conservation. The map is designed to help local governments evaluate land-use planning decisions.

The Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program (FMMP), part of DOC's Division of Land Resource Protection, maps 44.5 million acres of California's public and private land to produce a major study every two years.

In Sonoma County, 4,626 net acres were added to the urban category during the current mapping cycle compared to 2,111 acres during the 1996-98 cycle.

There is a net increase of 3,469 acres in the Important Farmland categories on the new map. That continued a trend from the 1996-98 cycle, during which the county gained 1,260 farmland acres. Both the new urban land and new irrigated agriculture occurred on what had historically been grazing and dryland grain areas. For example, several large vineyard complexes totaling more than 1,000 acres were noted in the hills east of the Alexander Valley, while three new vineyards totaling about 650 acres were mapped in the hills north of Sonoma.

Since the 1990 survey, Sonoma County has gained thousands of new acres of Important Farmland – bucking the statewide trend – mainly due to vineyard planting. It has also gained 10,500 acres of urban land. The figure for Important Farmland includes irrigated and non-irrigated uses, as well as high-quality soils that are currently being grazed. If only the irrigated component is considered, the county has gained more than 18,000 acres since 1990.

Looking ahead, Sonoma County reports that 1,071 acres have been committed to non-agricultural use in the future. Often, this is land earmarked for development. In some cases infrastructure development, such as sewer installation, may be underway.

The map has been sent to Sonoma County planning officials. Interested parties such as the county Farm Bureau, Local Agency Formation Commission, planning consultants and the county resource conservation districts have received copies.

"We do this mapping to help counties plan and prepare for their expected growth in the coming years," explained Department of Conservation Director Darryl Young. “This information is a tool that can help Sonoma County and other local governments balance the needs of a growing population with those of the agricultural economy."

Of the 1,026,060 acres mapped in Sonoma County, 42 percent was categorized as grazing land, 17 percent as farmland, 32 percent as “other” land and seven percent as urbanized land. “Other” land includes wetlands, low-density "ranchettes" and brush or timberlands unsuitable for grazing.

Sonoma County's agricultural land will continue to face development pressure in the foreseeable future. The California Department of Finance projects the county's population will grow from its current 450,000 to 570,000 in 2020.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the gross value of Sonoma County's agricultural production was more than $585 million in 2000, ranking it 16th among the state's 58 counties.

Following are examples of farmland and grazing land with new or additional urban uses in Sonoma County:

  • Skyhawk and other housing developments near Fountain Grove Parkway in Santa Rosa totaling more than 400 acres.

  • Expansion of the Skyline Business Center near the Sonoma County Airport.

  • Expansion of the Windsor Club golf resort area.

  • The Parkland Brambles and Estates and other housing developments totaling about 80 acres near Healdsburg.

The latest statewide study by the FMMP, Farmland Conversion Report 1996-98, was released in the fall of 2000. About 70,000 acres were urbanized throughout the state; more than 43,000 acres of the new urban land, an area about the size of the city of Modesto, were developed on agricultural land. A new statewide report will be released this fall.

Through the Department of Conservation, the state offers programs that provide financial incentives to keep land in agricultural use. The California Farmland Conservancy Program makes grants available to local governments, land trusts or resource conservation districts to purchase permanent agricultural conservation easements from willing landowners. These easements prohibit future development. Farmland Security Zone and Williamson Act contracts provide potential tax benefits to landowners who commit to keeping their land in agricultural use for periods of 20 or 10 years, respectively.

In addition to administering agricultural and open-space land conservation programs, the Department of Conservation ensures the reclamation of land used for mining; promotes beverage container recycling; regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells; and studies and maps earthquakes and other geologic phenomena.