In many parts of the United States, the high-technology industry is considered an almost ideal neighbor because its plants are relatively clean and generate local jobs. But in California's Sonoma County, only 100 miles north of the state's Silicon Valley -- a region synonymous with high tech -- voters may be telling the industry to stay away.
Sonoma, a rural and semi-rural county about an hour's drive north of San Francisco, was slated as the site of a huge, 581-acre campus-like development that hoped to lure computer and high-tech companies and other forms of light industry. But voters in a recent referendum in the city of Petaluma rejected the plan, despite assurances from the developers that the project, which includes a golf course and housing, would have been phased in gradually over 15 years to soften any adverse impact on the area.
Developers of the multi-use project had sought to rezone prime agricultural acreage southeast of the city limits for light industry and residential uses. And though no specific high-tech firms were ever named, "the intention was definitely to bring in the computer industry," says Ralph Thompson, editor of the Petaluma Argus Courier. Local citizens opposed the plan, he notes, because of fears that the development would generate traffic and pollution problems.
Numerous states and municipalities around the country continue to spend large sums of money to attract high-tech plants, but the potential negative side effects of such development have not been overlooked by Californians. Stories about skyrocketing housing prices in Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County, for example, are already abundant. Comments Pranab Chakrawarti, Sonoma County planning director, "The phrase that is frequently heard around Sonoma County about any major land development issue is 'We don't want to become another Santa Clara."
Petaluma is not the only California city wary of high-tech development. In nearby Rohnert Park (population about 25,000), a citizens' group is fighting plans by Hewlett-Packard Co. to construct a major new plant. Local residents were scheduled to decide in a referendum this April whether the company will be permitted to proceed in the proposed location.
The H-P plant would create about 6,000 new jobs, but Leonard Swenson, an independent financial consultant active with the group opposing the project, worries that permitting the computer company to build outside the area currently zoned for industry would result in severe traffic congestion, water supply problems, and a housing shortage.
Many local residents don't want Rohnert Park to become a "company town" either, says Swenson, no matter what the company is. They fear that the local economy could become too dependent on a single employer in a highly competitive, and increasingly vulnerable, industry.
The group fighting the new Hewlett Packard plant doesn't oppose all development, Swenson asserts, just that which is aimed at areas not zoned industrial. "Jobs are needed in the area," he says."There's no question."