Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Homeless update

Whew! It looks like a temporary emergency winter homeless shelter will be provided at the Guerneville Veterans Hall thanks to the efforts of West County Community Services, our local Veteran’s Connect, the Veteran’s Administration, & other homeless advocates. I hope this means that some other community group besides the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC) may emerge to address homeless issues on the Russian River & that this new group can accomplish something.

I don't mean to disrespect the folks at the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC) since I know they're sincere & have several friends & acquaintances who've worked hard for them in the past. Even yours truly helped a little with last year's pasta dinner fundraiser for the emergency shelter in Hubert Hall. But as I mentioned in my last posting, something's seriously wrong with RRIC.

Also, Efren Carrillo our 5th District Supervisor Elect does have some knowledge & experience about homeless issues & hopefully he’ll be able to work with us more effectively than Mike Reilly has been able to do.

Alas, an acquaintance of mine who attended recent meetings of the Russian River Fire Protection District (RRFPD) & the RRIC emergency meeting (to deal with the lack of a shelter) has informed me that the possibility of a homeless shelter at the Rio Nido Fire Station is “still on the table”. Not only that, but rumor has it that some people at RRIC want to make it PERMANENT! This looks highly unlikely, because Sam Barnhard from Catholic Charities – who would have run the proposed emergency shelter in Rio Nido – stated during the December 4 RRIC meeting that he would decline to do so because of all the local opposition.

Nonetheless, it looks like we folks in Rio Nido will need to stay on our toes.

Rumor has it that an important member of the RRFPD’s Board of Directors is involved with the people at RRIC or at least supportive of their agenda. Hmph. This could make it awfully hard for Fire Chief Sean Grinnell to get his proposed (& desperately-needed) tax hike through. Also, I have been informed that RRIC's emergency meeting was sparsely attended.

Homelessness on the Russian River: 12.4.2008 Meeting with the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC)

Approximately 15 neighbors from Rio Nido & I attended the Russian River Interfaith Coalition (RRIC)’s meeting at the Russian River Senior Center two weeks ago. Although I STILL don’t feel that Rio Nido is the right location for a homeless shelter (temporary emergency or otherwise), I did find the meeting to be highly informative. The people at the meeting answered many of our questions regarding the problem of homelessness on the Russian River & what we can do about it.

Presenters at the RRIC meeting included:

  • Cathy Smith, RRIC, Guerneville Community Church
  • Sam Barnhart, Caseworker from Catholic Charities
  • Nancy Lisk, RRIC, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Paula Cook, Community Housing Corporation,
  • Georgia Berland, Executive Officer, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Jan DeWald, RRIC, Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless
  • Elizabeth Middelberg, RRIC, Metropolitan Community Church

The information presented at the meeting has convinced me that we really do need to provide temporary, emergency winter shelter to the homeless members of our community, while arranging to construct & staff a permanent shelter as soon as possible. Studies have shown that a well-managed (emphasis on the “well-managed” part) homeless shelter & community supported housing helps people get their lives back on track, improves communities, & increases property values because it removes the quality of life problems & economic liabilities caused by leaving people out on the street.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that RRIC is the right organization for providing leadership on homeless issues affecting communities along the Russian River. Although they seem sincere & caring as individuals, their “organization” comes across to me as highly disorganized & dysfunctional. First of all, they’ve been around for three years & still don’t even have a permanent location for an emergency shelter, let alone a permanent one. Why didn’t they haul their bucket to the formerly gushing well of Russian River Redevelopment funds before 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly & Governor Ah-nold turned off the spigot?

I’ve also heard that RRIC has experienced savage infighting, held secret meetings without notifying the community or even some of their members, & have recently split up into two separate & mutually hostile groups.

I know several caring, committed & highly capable homeless advocates who have left the group because they couldn’t stand the toxic politics. Other grit their teeth & stay onboard because if you care about homeless issues, RRIC is the only game in town. RRIC has been also been accused of fraud (for accepting financial contributions from local organizations & individuals even though they still don’t have their 501(c) non-profit status legally squared away. They’ve also managed to alienate &/or infuriate various organizations & individuals around town (most recently the Rio Nido Homeowners Association) due to their poor communication, disorganization, & high-handedness. Various homeless advocates have also accused RRIC of doing little of the work & taking most of the credit for various successful programs (like last year’s emergency winter shelter) & misappropriating (or at least mismanaging) funds.

  • Why do we NEED a temporary emergency homeless shelter?: Because, when push comes to shove, the Russian River is NOT a third-world country (even though our homeless problem & the currently crappy economy sometimes makes us feel like we live in one). When the weather goes below freezing during the winter, people need a safe, warm place to go with cooking & bathroom facilities.
  • Why can’t we use Hubert Hall like we did last year?: The official reason from the new priest St. Elizabeth’s Church (which owns Hubert Hall) is that they need to hold masses (services) in Hubert Hall to save on utility bills. But I’ve heard rumors that some rogue RRIC supporters left scary messages on St. Elizabeth’s answering machine. It’s too bad. The emergency shelter at Hubert Hall was successful over the last two winters, & has been widely supported by our community.
  • How many people would be staying in this shelter each night?: Last year, 10-17 people stayed in Hubert Hall on cold nights. I have not heard of any negative incidents or criminal activity associated with the emergency shelter in Hubert Hall.
  • How would the shelter be kept safe?: The emergency shelter is only open for limited hours in the early evening through early morning. A qualified & experienced social worker (in this case, Mr Barnhart from Catholic Charities) would supervise those staying in the shelter to ensure that the surrounding area remains safe & quiet.
  • How many homeless people live on the River? For obvious reasons, it’s hard to count homeless people. But according to statistics gathered by the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless we have approximately 238 homeless people here on the Russian River. That’s a lot, considering that we only have a total of 3,841 people in Rio Nido, Guerneville, & Monte Rio according to the 2000 Census.
  • Who are the homeless?: When we talk about the “homeless problem,” we’re usually referring to the “chronic homeless”. The US Department of Housing & Urban Development defines them as people who’ve been out on the streets for 12 months or longer. We River Rats & Rattinas define them more colloquially as “the bums who panhandle, camp under the Guerneville Bridge, hang around looking creepy in the Safeway parking lot, & who scare people away.” They generally have severe mental illnesses & substance abuse issues (disabilities), which prevent them from functioning normally & obtaining employment & housing.

    But our homeless population also includes people who do not appear to be homeless. They seem totally “normal” & often even have jobs &/or children. Alas, they don’t earn enough income on a steady basis for settling down anywhere. They sleep in their cars or abandoned buildings, take showers & occasionally stay with friends or relatives, drift in & out of temporary housing, or have a trailer but no permanent place to park it. I personally know at least three local families with young children headed by single moms who’ve been homeless this way.

    The moms may be poor, single, uneducated & unskilled, but they’re basically nice & responsible people. Homeless people with children (usually single moms) generally do not stay in shelters, because most facilities are not set up for families with kids & also because "homeless" parents feel as protective of their children as "housed" parents do.

    According to Jan DeWald, a significant number of homeless people are “emancipated minors” who’ve "aged out" of the Foster Care system (which only supports children until they're 18 years old) or whose families have abandoned them. These people are just kids, for pete's sake.
  • Why can’t these people find housing?: People who become habitually homeless are usually mentally ill, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or have other disabilities which prevent them from either holding down a job or going through the process & paperwork required to obtain social services, housing, & SSI disability payments. Without a steady income, good credit record, & ability to present well, they can’t find anyone willing to rent to them.
  • Why won’t their family or friends take them in? Those among the chronic homeless have generally exhausted all of their options or have no family members capable of helping them. Unsurprisingly, these folks are difficult for others to live with long-term. Friends & relatives take them in at first, then – one after the other in succession – get fed up & kick them out after 6 months of sleeping on the couch without getting their act together (which they cannot do without professional help). Often their parents have passed away & they're rapidly approaching senior citizenship themselves. Many of them have served in the Vietnam War & suffered permanent mental damage as a result.
  • Why can’t we just give these people a one-way bus ticket to Santa Rosa?: Because most of these people were born &/or raised here & feel that the Russian River is their home. Although life on the streets & under the Bridge is hard, they've learned how to cope & stick with what they know. They've learned the ropes & have friends & support here in this community. They know where they can get food, clothing, & access to a bathroom or shower (some homeless people DO have jobs –albeit low-paying – & do need to be presentable at work). These folks will cling to, protect & defend their little sleeping-bag-sized scrap of turf under the Guerneville Bridge with the same passion & determination that my neighbors & me in Rio Nido cling to, protect, & defend our dinky little ramshackle homes perched upon our precipitous, overly-shady tufts of dry land. We all make ourselves at home, wherever our homes happen to be.
  • If RRIC cares so much, why don’t they provide a shelter in their own building?: Their own building? Ha ha ha! RRRIC doesn’t have a building. They’re just a group of concerned citizens trying to work with various churches, government agencies, & non-profits to get homeless people some desperately-needed help. I wish they DID have a building, because then we wouldn't be worrying about finding temporary facilities for an emergency winter homeless shelter.
  • … And what the heck IS RRIC, anyway?: They';re group of local homeless advocates & church leaders. Alas, most of the homeless advocates & church leaders have dropped out of the group. They’ve been around for three years & are in the process of obtaining 501(c) nonprofit status. Unfortunately, they haven’t made much progress in addressing homeless issues due to disorganization & toxic internal politics.
  • What housing programs do we currently offer here on the Russian River?: West County Services provides emergency housing vouchers (good for staying in a local hotel) for families with children in need. We also offer Section 8 (federally subsidized) housing, but, alas, the waiting list is two years long.
  • Is it even possible to the help the homeless?: According to Ms. Berland, The majority of homeless people have temporarily fallen upon hard times, have support networks (friends, family, & community services), & manage to get their lives back on track. With the proper support systems in place (I’ll get to that later), 75% of even the chronic homeless population (i.e. the “hard cases”) are able to settle into permanent housing & become law-abiding members of their communities.
  • So what can we do?: We need to provide a temporary emergency shelter in downtown Guerneville for this winter, because that’s where the homeless people & various services & amenities are located. A site in a residential neighborhood like Rio Nido is inappropriate for both the homeless people & the local residents. And we also need to build a permanent shelter/housing with the appropriate social services. As mentioned above, a combination of welfare, job training, counseling, affordable housing, medical care, & other support (fixing bad credit, obtaining SSI & disability & other benefits, etc.) enable the majority of homeless people to obtain a steady income & housing. Unfortunately, social service programs are currently facing severe budget cuts.

    The chronic homeless have severe & persistent mental health issues & require permanent “community supported housing” to keep them off the streets. Which means they would be given a place to live, a social worker to follow their case, and whatever rehabilitation, medication, mental health services & other support they require.

    At first, this seems expensive & downright unfair to the ordinary taxpayer. Why should we give permanent housing & services these people when the rest of us are struggling & get no help at all? However, many towns & cities – including Washington DC – have discovered that it’s a LOT less expensive to provide community supported housing to the chronic homeless than it is to leave them out on the streets. This makes sense when you consider the costs of policing, un-reimbursed emergency room visits, sporadic social services & shelter, loss of income for local businesses & quality of life issues.

    If you feel that providing permanent housing & ongoing social services for the chronic homeless/mentally ill is expensive & unfair, please do consider the fact that a single ambulance trip to Palm Drive Hospital for someone in an alcoholic coma who’s choking on their own vomit costs over $1000! Tax payers routinely pay for this sort of thing, & a host of other hidden costs which are astronomical & totally avoidable.
  • Won’t a permanent homeless shelter lower our property values?: According to Ms. Berland a well-run homeless shelter &/or permanent community housing program (I emphasize the words WELL-RUN) tends to RAISE property values in the long-run because these programs eliminate the problems caused by leaving homeless people out & about.
  • What affordable housing options do we currently have available?: Um … you can move to Nevada. But seriously, we don’t have many. Even tiny studios around here are renting for around $800 per month. . There’s section 8 (which has a two-year waiting list even if you qualify); trailer parks (assuming you have a trailer & don’t live in one of the trailer parks that are being shut down); & emergency housing vouchers for families with children from West County Community Services (to stay at a cheap, residential hotel like River Lane during the off-season). Luther Burbank’s planned affordable housing complex on 5th & Mill will provide sliding scale apartments with some units set aside for permanent community supported housing. But that’ll take at least three years to build & I don’t know if folks around here can wait that long & there may not be enough units to go around.

Th-th-that’s all folks. I’ve tried my best to gather reliable information from various people involved. Please feel free to comment & provide any additional information that you may have.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Join the new Rio Nido Community Forum on Yahoo Groups

I've started an online newsgroup for my little community here in Rio Nido. To join, visit our Web page at & click the button that says JOIN NOW. Here, we can exchange information, discuss issues & current events, post announcements, upload relevant photos & documents, & keep a calendar of upcoming events. I hope we can get this thang going.

Rio Nido residents clash over proposed emergency homeless shelter during contentious meeting

12.12.2008 12:30pm, Rio Nido -- Local resident & RRROC member John Uniack & Rio Nido Homeowner's Association (RNHA) chair, Doug Meisner bravely faced hordes of enraged Rio Nido residents with flaming torches & pitchforks in a largely futile attempt to present the Russian River Interfaith Coalition's (RRIC) proposal for hosting an emergency homeless shelter in the Rio Nido Fire Station.

Okay, I'm exaggerating about the flaming torches & pitchforks & unruly mob. But the 30-or-so folks who showed up -- including vacation home owners who drove all the way from San Francisco to attend the meeting -- were pretty highly outraged. Especially since RRIC representative Jan De Wald cancelled the meeting at the last minute & didn't even bother showing up.

Neighbors (including me) voiced numerous objections, including: "We're residential & aren't set up for this!"; "Why does everything get dumped on Rio Nido!"; "My house has been broken into TWICE!"; "They'll smoke cigarettes & do drugs in the parking lot!"; "Yeah, SURE it'll be 'temporary'!"; "The Interfaith Coalition doesn't even have the guts to show up!"; etc.

When things finally settled down, people asked questions & the following answers have emerged:
  • WHY RIO NIDO?: The RRIC can't find anyone in Guerneville to do it & have exhausted all their other options. St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church provided emergency shelter at Hubert Hall in Guerneville last year, but can't do it this year because financial difficulties have required them to shut down their church & hold their services at Hubert hall. The Guerneville Community Church can't do it because the Guerneville Head Start preschool is located on the premises. And I have no idea of why the Guerneville Veteran's Hall won't do it.
  • How many people would be using the shelter?: 10-15 per night.
  • When would the shelter be used: Only in the winter when the temperature goes below freezing (I'm not sure if shelter would also be offered when it rains).
  • How would they get here?: A bus will pick them up from downtown Guerneville in the evening & take them back to downtown Guerneville in the morning.
  • What measures will the RRIC take to keep Rio Nido safe?: The homeless will be bussed in & out (as explained above) & the doors will be shut for the night. A qualified & experienced social worker will be hired to provide supervision.
  • Why didn't anyone from the RRIC show up at the meeting?: They cancelled the meeting because they're having difficulties in obtaining permits from the Board of Supervisors. Hence, their proposal may be moot.
  • Who ultimately gets to decide?: The Russian River Fire Protection District (RRFPD) gets to decide because they own the Rio Nido Fire Station.
  • How many homeless people are there on the River?: Approximately 257 people. As of 2007, the Sonoma County Task Force on the Homeless counted 1974 homeless people in Sonoma County, 13% of whom are estimated to live in the Russian River area. These figures are only estimations because the homeless are difficult to count & also because of varying definitions of homelessness. As far as the emergency shelter is concerned, we're talking about the chronically homeless who've camped out along the River (behind Safeway, under the Guerneville Bridge, etc.) for years & years. According to my highly unscientific & statistically invalid head-count, I think we're looking at about 30 people who will be in need of emergency shelter. But there are also folks who are temporarily homeless, folks living in shelters, & folks who couch-surf & drift in & out of non-standard housing situations. For more information & a link to the 2007 study (formatted as a PDF) go to the Sonoma County Development Commission's FAQ about Homelessness.
SO ... where does this leave us? We'll find out at the NEXT MEETING to be held at the Guerneville Senior Center on Wednesday December 3rd at 5:30PM.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An emergency homeless shelter in the Rio Nido Fire Station?!

Should the Rio Nido Fire Station become an emergency homeless shelter for the winter? The Russian River Interfaith Coalition wants us to consider this possibility. If you feel strongly one way or the other, please come to the neighborhood meeting -- especially if you live in or do business in Rio Nido.

The meeting will be held at 12:30pm, Saturday November 29th, at the Rio Nido Fire Station.

Personally, I think this is a terrible idea for the following reasons:
  • The Fire Station is too small & has no bathroom (though there's a small one in the adjacent post office) or kitchen facilities;

  • Rio Nido has few services & amenities & is two miles from downtown Guerneville (though the Interfaith Coalition plans to hire a bus to shuttle people back & forth each morning & evening);

  • The presence of a homeless shelter & the resulting concentration of people with substance abuse & mental health issues would be extremely disruptive to our neighborhood & possibly unsafe for the high percentage of vulnerable young children & senior citizens who live in the immediate vicinity of the Fire Station;

    and ...

  • Oh, yeah, as I forgot to mention when I first posted this ... what happens if there's a fire? & where would we put all of the fire fighting gear?
The folks at Hubert Hall say they can't host a shelter again this year (even though my church hosted a dinner/raffle last year which raised $3000 for creating a shelter there). The people at the Guerneville Veterans Hall also say they can't do it. If these facilities -- with their kitchens, bathrooms, & square footage -- can't handle the upcoming wave of homeless people, then the Rio Nido Fire Station certainly can't.

I spoke with a couple of people who are involved with the Interfaith Coalition. They've assured me that the hours will be limited, that the shelter will be managed & supervised by qualified personnel, & that a bus will bring the people here at night & take them back downtown in the morning. They also informed me that they've exhausted all other possible options & that the Rio Nido Fire Station is their last hope.

I feel like I'm being a heartless ogre, since without an emergency shelter, some of these folks could freeze to death. But as a home owner & the protective mother of a 6-year-0ld girl, I really don't want the mentally ill & substance abusing people who camp out beneath the Guerneville Bridge all year long to be imported en masse to a facility which is only a few yards from my house! I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, since there are at least 10 other children in the immediate vicinity.

I'm not the only one who feels that constant proximity to drug users with mental issues is unwholesome for young children: Even my fellow congregants at our Guerneville Community Church -- who passionately advocate for the homeless -- admit that we can't host the shelter in our church because the Guerneville Head Start preschool is located on the property.

On the one hand, I do believe that we should take care of people going through hard times. High rents, foreclosures, unemployment, & health issues have caused many members of our community to lose their homes ... or be on the verge of losing their homes. On the other hand, I do not think our community should necessarily participate in enabling drug addiction, crime & vandalism amongst the chronically homeless.

I also don't understand why the Interfaith Coalition regards the Rio Nido Fire Station as the only possible option. There are two properties in downtown Guerneville which appear to be unoccupied: (1) The church next to River to Coast Childcare Services across from the Veteran's Hall by Church & Mill Streets; and (2) The old, gray bank building on Main & Church Streets. Why can't we have the shelter in one of these places?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rave review for Fern Grove on SF Gate

Woo hoo! Travel writer Peter Hartlaub just gave our very own Fern Grove Cottages here in Guerneville an enthusiastic write-up on SF Gate yesterday. Hopefully the review will also appear in the print version of the San Francisco Chronicle. Owners Margaret & Michael Kennett have already gotten some bookings from SF Gate readers & perhaps our other local businesses will see some new customers too.

The Kennetts definitely deserve this rave review. Their establishment is affordable, friendly, clean, comfortable, hospitable, & charming. They have Wi-Fi & Margaret's breakfast scones are totally to-die-for. In addition, the Kennetts have been huge boosters for Guerneville & surrounding towns, & provide guests with well-organized looseleaf binders full of recommendations & brochures for restaurants, merchants, recreations, sites, arts, music, & upcoming events.

I do feel obliged to confess that my husband & I have a huge-warm-fuzzy-soft-spot for Fern Grove Cottages. When we first moved here with our daughter (then a rambunctious toddler) four years ago in November 2004, it was our home for 10 days. The escrow on the home we'd bought here took so danged long, while the escrow on the home we sold in Berkeley went through so fast (three days!) it was like, "don't let the door hit your butt on the way out."

We needed a place to stay for an indefinite period of time, & Fern Grove looked so danged twinkling, warm & inviting even though we had never before noticed the place despite years of frequent visits to the area. It turned out that the Kennetts had recently taken over the place & had already added some improvements. They made us feel comfortable & welcome, & proved immensely kind, helpful & accommodating despite the fact that we definitely were not quite the clientele they were seeking.

We were stressed out with the tangled logistics of our move, the upcoming holidays, & our lack of cell phone service in the area with our former providers. Yet, the Kennett's warm hospitality, cozy furnishings, & simple -- but key -- amenities often made us feel as though we were on vacation. Which is how staying in a hotel or B&B should make you feel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Happy homeless Christmas

So ... you think the homeless problem is bad now? Wait until December 1st, when four of our trailer parks close in accordance with yet another brilliant piece of legislation from the mad geniuses who run our county. Where will all these people go? If they don't find somewhere to go, the county will tow away their RV's, trailers, tents, etc. & leave them out on the street. Imagine how festive & welcoming our upcoming Victorian-themed holiday float parade in Guerneville will appear, with all of our scenic roadways crammed with vehicles from these parks? Nice.

I first found out about this impending event from a woman in my church who lives at the Fairy Ring trailer park -- not from the local media or any sort of announcement. I tried to do some research online with various key words & found NO information whatsoever. Apparently, the Powers-That-Be wish to keep this upcoming purge as quiet as possible.

FYI, rural areas like the Russian River here in Western Sonoma don't have low-income housing projects like cities & suburbs ... we have trailer parks. Like urban/suburban projects, our rural trailer parks have the usual assortment of low-wage workers, struggling families, elderly & disabled folks on fixed incomes, & yes, the stereotypical druggies & trouble-makers. And like many protective, middle-class moms, I'd love to see the disruptive substance abusers go somewhere else ... anywhere else.

But what about the folks who cause no harm & contribute positively to the community & simply can't afford local rents? A space in a trailer park costs about $400 per month -- affordable for those who've managed to acquire a trailer, RV or manufactured home. A studio rents for more like $700 & a two-bedroom apartment rents for about $1200 per month. You do the math.

Sure, these folks can apply for subsidized housing, but the wait is often two years long & what are they supposed to do in the meantime?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Guerneville School hosts annual Halloween Carnival

Join us for a festive fall celebration with fun for the whole family! Friends of Guerneville School (FOGS) is hosting the annual Halloween Carnival on Saturday, November 1st at the Guerneville School from 11am-3pm.

Highlights will include a haunted house, games, face painting, food, fun & prizes. Wear your scariest or most fabulous costume & bring along your Halloween Jack-O-Lantern & enter it in our pumpkin contest! Prizes will be awarded for each grade.

FOGS is group of parents, teachers, friends & concerned citizens who organize community events & raise funds for music, arts, athletic, & other enrichment programs for our students. We are currently asking for donations from local business owners to help sponsor this important yearly event. We would also be grateful to anyone who volunteers.

For more information, please contact the Guerneville School at 869.2864.

Or mail a check to:

c/0 Guerneville School
14630 Armstrong Woods Road
Guerneville, CA 95446

You can also email me at russianriverrattina at gmail dot com.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Discharge THIS, Santa Rosa!

I recently signed a petition to prevent the City of Santa Rosa from discharging even MORE of their "processed waste water" (i.e. "sewage") into the Russian River from Steelhead Beach in Forestville, & recommend that you do the same. To sign this petition, please visit Coffee Bazaar on Armstrong Woods Road in Downtown Guerneville, or visit the Web site at & fill out your information online.

After all ... if the waste-water is as clean & compliant with the Federal Clean Water Act as the folks in Santa Rosa claim, then they should have no qualms about doing what folks do in water-starved San Diego: Recycle their processed sludge into drinking water & pump it back into their water supply.

Speaking of water issues, after two summers of "low-flow" out here on the River & the resulting algae blooms & outright revulsion from local residents & tourists alike, I'm REALLY starting to resent all the lush, green expanses of lawns I so frequently see while driving through Santa Rosa. The cleanliness & ecological health of the Russian River -- a public resource -- should certainly take precedence over the poor landscaping choices of individual property owners when it comes to water management.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Raves: Oh, I DO so love the Rio Movie Theater!

I've mentioned this before & I'll mention it again. I DO so love the Rio Theater in Monte Rio. My husband, daughter & I saw Wall-E there this evening & had a grand ol' time. The Rfio is located in a quirky quonset hut in the center of town, which is colorfully & vivaciously painted with murals (inside & out) by a former high-school student with local vistas & movie scenes from days gone by.

The owners are friendly & have the best concession stand ever (with some decent food & beverages & real butter on the popcorn, in addition to the usual candy & junk), & you almost always run into people you really like & haven't seen in a long time. It's the sort of multi-generation family-run business which harks to days gone by, with various children, grandchildren & other relatives pitching in to keep the place up & running.

This place definitely has character, with its murals, dusty velvet curtains, & distinctly local feel. Folks who've been jaded by the endless slick advertisements & obnoxiously endless previews & who hence choose to arrive late for movies will need to come reasonably on time here, because the folks at the Rio actually DO show the movie within five minutes or so of the stated time.

I've often even found the preview filler stuff fun, because it often feels like a family slide show & consists of photos from local festivals or someones trip to Europe, interspersed with ads from local businesses providing services that you may actually need. Then there may be a movie preview or two (I've never seen more than two), followed by a short animation piece (if it's a movie by Pixar), & then the movie begins.

I must admit that Wall-E totally lives up to its hype. Somehow, the folks at Pixar have managed to create a couple of robot characters with more charm & a wider range of facial expressions than many humans who happen to be amongst my acquaintances. The movie works well for young children because the characters are cute, nothing overly scary or horrifying happens, there's lots of silly slapstick comedy in which nobody really gets hurt, & most of the plot is conveyed visually (because the robots only have a rudimentary vocabulary).

The kids were laughing heartily throughout the movie, yet the movie is also amusing for grown-ups thanks to the humor, charming animation, & oblique references to culture & various trends.

I do feel obliged to warn that some sensitive young children may freak out about the initial premise -- that Wall-E is left entirely alone on earth to clean up after all the humans have left & has no family or friends in the beginning, save a hardy & indomitable little cockroach. Otherwise, Wall-E is totally a movie that you & your children can enjoy.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Rants: Bizarre color choices made by our home's previous owners

My husband & I are having a totally thrilling evening. He's typing away on his laptop & I'm doing prep-work so I can start painting over the nasty battle-ship gray trim & doors in our living room. Whatever made the previous owners of our house choose greyish white for the walls & battle-ship gray for the trim & doors?

I shouldn't complain. If the previous owners' sense of color had matched their flair for construction, re-modelling, & craftsmanship (they did a lot of the work themselves, did a good solid job mostly, & even pulled permits for some of the work), I'm convinced that they would have been able to sell their house more quickly for their original asking price, instead of letting it languish on the market & settling for the considerably lower amount they were willing to settle for by the time we stumbled upon this place. Homes were in demand & prices around here were shockingly high back in 2004.

The previous owners put a lot of work & remodeling into our current home & -- for the most part -- did an excellent job. In fact, we wound up buying this particular place three-and-a-half years ago -- despite the difficulties of our vertical lot -- in part because our part of Rio Nido is such a wonderful neighborhood, & primarily because our house is so well-laid out & strongly constructed with good insulation, in sharp contrast with other places we looked at in our price-range, which were total hunks of junk.

Yet ... the colors chosen by the previous owners are totally depressing. The walls are all painted in the sort of dingy, greyish white that interior decorators & color specialists (the folks who make a living designing colors for various products, like paint, tile, linoleum, appliances, etc.) refer to as "dirty" because there's a lot of dingy gray underlying the color mix, & these pigments become increasingly dingy over the years. These dark, gray-ish pigments were highly fashionable back in the eighties when designers were harking back to the art-deco craze of the 1920's & everything was high-tech smooth, sleek & angular with gray, black & chrome accented with heavy doses of burgundy.

What I find even more bizarre than the previous owners' depressing color choices, is the fact that these folks have obviously devoted considerable love & care towards the application of these suicide-inducing hues. Their diabolical craftsmanship is utterly flawless with nary a blobby drip mark or stray bit of paint on the door knobs, hinges, & fixtures to be found. If you look closely, you'll even find that the door & trim paint has been so delicately applied that you can still see the grain of the wood ... um ... if they really ARE made of wood.

I know little about the previous owners of my home, except that they have a daughter who is about my daughter's age (about three years old when they left & probably six years old now); are serious musicians; appear to have grown "California tomatoes"* in the clumsily constructed (yet fully insulated & wired with electricity) "charming, adorable play house" (to quote their astute realtor) to finance their artistic habits; & wound up moving to Petaluma so they could be closer to their music scene.

I imagine them as sleekly-styled, androgynous throw-backs to the 80's with spiky hair, wrap-around or Ray Ban sunglasses, & sporting black, angular blazers with tight, black & white hounds-tooth "cigarrette-leg" jeans & suede, fuschia "elf" boots which rise to just above the ankle, have inch-high heels, pointy toes, & three brass snaps up the sides. Apparently, their interior design sense derives from the art-deco resurgence which was so hip back in the 80's & which was heavily influenced by the late 1920'3/early 30's color palette displayed on the cover of Duran Duran's 1982 chart-busting "Rio" album. I assume that their furnishings were all maroon & gray with chrome trim.

I often wonder what they're doing now. Do they wake up groggy-eyed from last night's gig at some electronica/techno rave in San Francisco at 6:30am (perhaps they argue about whose turn it is to wake up & be functional), make coffee, feed their daughter an easy breakfast of cheerios with strawberries & milk & a sprinkling of white sugar (they're probably not yet hungry enough to feed themselves breakfast), drop her off at school, wearily return home for a couple hours of shut-eye, & then spend a couple of hours practicing & composing on their synthesizer & electronic drum kit in their burgundy-colored studio with gray carpet & chrome accents, pick their daughter up from school, help her pick up tunes on the electronic keyboard, do homework with her, give her dinner & a bath, put her to bed, hire a sitter, & head off to their next gig in San Francisco. And out in back, there's a little shed which would be utterly charming if it weren't painted grey-ish white & battle-ship gray, which their daughter has been been emphatically instructed to NEVER go in there. Either that, or she waters the plants every day.

* California Tomatoes? There's a certain plant/medicinal herb which is federally illegal to grow, sell, or have in one's possession, but which has proven medical benefits, & which many folks grow around here to supplement their sketchy finances & which are perfectly legal to grow & possibly even sell to others in the State of California, as long as you have a prescription for it from a doctor, have registered your prescription with the State of California, & only sell it to others who have prescriptions & are registered with the State of California, or to State-licensed dispensaries.

Because this conversational topic often comes up when my six-year-old daughter is present, & because heirloom tomatoes are a popular & profitable export here in rural Sonoma County, I often refer to this particular plant -- which is also highly popular & profitable -- as "California tomatoes." In many ways, these crops have a similar & highly beneficial effect upon our local economy, except for the fact that nobody ever pays $3000 per pound for heirloom tomatoes. Personally, I believe that "California tomatoes" should be legalized, & a huge part of me would love to get into this racket myself, because heaven knows, my family & I could sure use the cash. Alas, I'm too danged cowardly to even drive over the posted speed limit or tear off the annoying, flapping tags on my mattress & pillows which emphatically state "DO NOT REMOVE), let alone planting myself a nice, lucrative crop of California tomatoes.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rants: WHY can't people drive at the speed limit -- no faster, no slower?

I've lived most of my life in cities & hence haven't spent a lot of my time driving, compared to most people. City rents & other expenses were so high that I walked, biked, or took public transit everywhere. Then we had a child who got motion-sickness on buses (NOT pretty) & for various other reasons decided to move out here.

So I finally bought myself an automobile. I quickly grew to love my car, because it's the quickest, most convenient, & safe-est mode of transport that I've ever known. Yet I also find it aggravating, because people are so danged self-centered & downright MEAN when they're driving. If they're in a hurry to go somewhere, they ride on your tailgate, honk, & flash their lights, even though I'm simply going at the posted speed limit ... um, okay, maybe 5-10 miles above the speed limit. I would gladly pull over & let them pass, but need to find a safe place in order to do so.

Meanwhile, other folks drive WAY slower than the speed limit & keep randomly STOPPING. Then they suddenly TURN left or right without flashing a signal. This also totally drives me nuts. Don't they understand that others need to get somewhere? Don't they know that they can turn around later if they miss their turn? Don't they know that someone might rear-end them -- or me -- if they keep driving like clueless slugs?

On the other hand, people drive through my residential neighborhood with narrow roads & no sidewalks, & children present, at high speeds because they think it's fun, & when you holler at them to slow down, they just speed up.

What the hell happens to people when they get behind the wheel of a car? Do they even know that anyone else exists? What drives me nuts is how common courtesy & basic civility seems to be suspended once a person gets behind the wheel.

What evolution of thought makes a person STOP thinking of a car as a three-ton, potentially lethal, & immense convenience & START thinking of a car as some sort of anonymous conveyance for their aggressions & hostilities?

Speed limits & traffic laws have been determined by people with graduate degrees in city planning & traffic studies from elite schools, who have studied reams & reams of data. Why do we consider our impulses & home-spun knowledge to be so infinitely superior that we are willing to risk unnecessary traffic accidents?

Swim Lessons at the Rio Nido Pool

River to Coast Childcare Services has been offering morning swim lessons at the Rio Nido Pool during the month of July, in 30-minute sessions from 9am-11am through a partnership with the YMCA in Santa Rosa.

For $4.00 per lesson for each family, (or $32 for two weeks worth of lessons, Monday-Thursday), the children receive 30 minutes of swim lessons & can then hang out at the pool for the day (without paying the normal $6 per day fee). This program may continue through August if there's enough demand for it.

I initially felt somewhat doubtful about these lessons, even though we have a summer membership for the Rio Nido Pool. My 6-year-old daughter has been highly resistant towards my attempts towards enrolling her in swim lessons in the past -- even though she loves the water -- & had absolutely ZERO desire to participate in this current round of lessons, either. Nonetheless, I told her she MUST try it, because being a non-swimmer in this River Town is NOT an option, so she reluctantly agreed.

My, oh, my ... these instructors are pretty danged good & awfully persuasive ... now my daughter can't WAIT to go to her swim lessons & even feels disappointed that there is no swim lesson tomorrow (because it's Friday). They handle all age groups & personalities remarkably well. Each child receives a good balance of group time, watching time (i.e. seeing other kids swim, including the fabulous exploits of older/more advanced kids), & individual time practicing things with the instructor. They're amazing & REALLY good with the kids, & get them to do all sorts of things that you could only get your kids to do in your dreams ... like, swim underwater without holding their noses, float on their backs, doggy-paddle or swim the crawl all the way across the pool, etc.

For more information or to ask about future swim lessons, please call River to Coast Childcare Services at 707.869.3613. Lessons are only scheduled through July 18th, but I'm sure that they will find a way to extend them if enough of us want them to continue.

It's important for us to have a regular program of swim instruction here on the Russian River. The proximity of the River makes it extremely urgent that our children know how to swim & have a thorough understanding of water safety. I'm grateful to the folks at RCCS & the Santa Rosa YMCA for offering us this program.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What’s up with those cheap Russian River real estate listings?

Do you frequently browse the real estate section on Craig’s List or the San Francisco Chronicle & wonder about all those insanely affordable listings for the Russian River*? Perhaps you’ve even visited & salivated over all those “affordable charmers” beckoning tantalizingly from the local realtors’ window displays. If so, I certainly can’t blame you. Especially if you live in the Bay Area & STILL find yourself priced out of the housing market. $650K for a 2BR/1BA “fixer” starter home in a dicey neighborhood with substandard schools? Jeez Louise!

My husband & I finally succumbed to 10+ years of temptation, sold our house in Berkeley, & bought our home in Rio Nido in late 2004. Living out here has definitely required some adjustments, but over all, things have worked out quite well for us. With friends & acquaintances purchasing homes in equally far-flung places like Antioch & Patterson (which seemed far less appealing to us) & facing the possibility of our daughter getting assigned to an inferior school in Berkeley (which can happen even in the most desirable & expensive Bay Area neighborhoods), making the move no longer seemed quite so crazy as it once did.

We revel in the natural beauty around us; enjoy our friendly & caring community & neighbors; love our “adorable, cozy 3BR/2BA” (which, at 1,600 square feet is fairly modest, but spacious compared to our apartment in San Francisco & our teensy little starter-fixer-home in Berkeley); & feel totally thrilled with the Guerneville Elementary School (K-8), where our daughter is now finishing Kindergarten. We’re still only an hour & change from our former haunts in San Francisco & Berkeley … yet we’ve also discovered a surprising number of urban & cultural amenities right here at home.

Too good to be true? Maybe … or … Maybe not.

Are these relatively inexpensive properties too good to be true? As a former resident of San Francisco & Berkeley who is hence privy to real estate insanity, I have to say … maybe … then again, … maybe not. It all depends on how strongly you’re drawn to this place, & what’s truly important to you over the long haul. The Russian River isn’t just a place to hang your hat, it becomes a way of life.

As a person who since early childhood has only experienced life in heavily urban environments, small-town living often feels like entering a bizarre time-warp. It’s sort of like inhabiting Garrison Keillor’s idyllic Lake Wobegon, spiced up with a dash of Charles Bukowski & David Sedaris. For better & worse, everyone knows everyone else, & everyone’s business, which often turns out to be quite scandalous.

Homes are definitely more affordable here. You can still get a decent, 3br/2ba home for $350K or less. I’ve even seen listings for livable fixers for $300K & under. Or, you can have a larger home with all the amenities -- an acre or more of land; modern kitchen with granite counter-tops, newly installed hardwood floors; built-in cabinets, shelves & closets; deck with hot tub; fruit trees, etc. for around $500K.

And these are just the asking prices. In today’s depressed real estate market you might be able to successfully make an offer for considerably less – if you & your realtor handle things right. Even in boom-times, buyers can negotiate with sellers in this area over repairs & other issues, when they turn up in the inspection report. Apparently, our community is too small for even the most desirable properties to inspire the dreaded bidding wars endemic to the inner Bay Area.

On the other hand, you can’t be a total jerk & make an insultingly low-ball offer on homes around here. Yes, some homes are in – or on the verge of – foreclosure (as you can see on Yahoo’s real estate site). But others have extremely low (or entirely paid-off) mortgages, & sellers can afford to wait until the market turns around. I’m also surprised to see that the foreclosure listings are still rather pricey (the bidding for homes comparable to ours starts at a bit more than we paid).

The upsides to living in the Russian River area

Russian River offers incomparable natural beauty; a strong feeling of community; excellent schools & preschools (with free after school programs available for K-8 in Guerneville & Monte Rio); some truly lovely neighborhoods; reasonable commutes to good jobs in some fields; unreasonable – but do-able – commutes to more jobs in the inner Bay Area; & a surprising number of the “city” amenities you currently enjoy in the immediate area, plus more in nearby Sebastopol & Santa Rosa. And best of all ... we don't have any of those ugly subdivisions out here. The Russian River boasts an eclectic diversity of architecture, unique & beautiful properties, & there's something for everyone.

Amenities on the Russian River include:

  • Culture: The newly Russian River Music Conservatory in Guerneville & the Pegasus Theater in Monte Rio perform throughout the year. If you like to sing, you can join the Russian River Choir, which performs both classical & modern pieces. We have several popular small live music venues, including The Rio Nido Roadhouse, Main Street CafĂ©, & the Pink Elephant in Monte Rio, in addition to the huge Russian River Blues Festival held at Johnson’s Beach every year. We also have a variety of art galleries featuring works by talented local artists & a book club at the Guerneville Public Library. Writers do readings at the River Reader bookstore in Guerneville. For national & regional acts, the Wells Fargo Performance Center is a short distance straight up River Road.
  • Food: We have lots of good restaurants around here. Our favorites are Mosaic, Applewood, Stella’s Cafe, the Village Inn & the River’s End for fine dining; Nit’s Thai Creations & Sizzling Tandoor for great ethnic food with a view (the former is on the river in Rio Nido, the latter overlooks the ocean in Jenner); & the Rio Nido Roadhouse, River Inn Grill, & the Garden Grill for delicious & affordable casual/family dining. Lots of folks around here also love Taqueria Tapatia in downtown Guerneville. Also there’s our iconic local hangout, which is Pat’s Diner by day (good, greasy, comfort food) & Chef Patrick’s by night (with affordable classics like chicken marsala, plus an assortment of more innovative dishes).
  • Outdoor recreation: With the river, Armstrong Woods, & the coast nearby, there’s plenty of hiking, surfing, fishing, & bird watching around here. It’s fun to canoe & kayak around here & a few places to rent them if you don’t have your own, or take guided tours. And we also have the lovely Northwood Golf Club, where you can golf under the redwoods. Western Sonoma County is also a beautiful place for bike rides for both serious & amateur cyclists. If you’re serious about physical fitness & also need indoor recreation, there’s the wonderful, full-service Airport Club gym within easy driving distance in Santa Rosa – it has just about everything, including childcare. For folks with simpler needs, we also have a nice, inexpensive, place right here in town (the Gym for Everybody). The service is friendly, the equipment is very basic, & the owners will enthusiastically help you create a good custom work out if you need help. People also frequently go wine-tasting, apple & berry-picking, & mushroom picking.
  • Kids/Family fun: River To Coast Childcare Services offers Kindergym for the crawler through preschool set on Monday & Tuesday mornings (9:30am-12pm), with an assortment of fun art, music, literacy, & physical activities for the kids. Kindergym also offers opportunities to connect with other parents/caregivers, plus the RCCS folks all have extensive Child Development education & experience & can address any questions & concerns about ages & stages, etc. that you may have (they’re really nice & non-judgmental – many of them are also bilingual/Spanish). RCCS can also help you find childcare in the area & obtain subsidies if your annual income qualifies. The Guerneville Public Library has a fabulous story time/literacy hour on Wednesday mornings for the little ones & Saturday movies for all ages at 12noon year-round. They also feature events (including music, magic, & nature talks) during summer vacation, which appeal to kids of all ages (& grown-ups as well). For summer swimming & water play, there’s the Rio Nido Pool, Johnson’s Beach, & Monte Rio Beach. West County Services runs an excellent after school program during the school year at the Monte Rio & Guerneville elementary schools, & also a summer camp ($100 per week) at the Monte Rio Elementary School & swim lessons at Johnson’s Beach & Monte Rio Beach (you’ll need to call them – they don’t update their Web site terribly often). Mama Java’s Coffee Shop (on Route 116 next to the Northwood Golf Course) in Monte Rio also has an ongoing mother’s group, which meets on Monday mornings.
  • Our schools: The Guerneville & Monte Rio Elementary schools go from Kindergarten through 8th grade. On the Web site, we have good ratings in terms of test scores (7 out of 10, with “Distinguished Schools” awards from the state for meeting goals & increasing test scores even though we’re a rural & low-income area), & EXCELLENT 4-5 star ratings from happy parents. Our small campuses encourage an intimate, accepting atmosphere. Older kids mentor the younger ones as “reading buddies” & classroom helpers. Through our environmental education programs, children plant, tend, & harvest our school gardens & also learn to enjoy preparing & eating what they’ve grown. The kids take numerous field trips & participate in various enrichment programs, including art, music, computer lab, folk dancing, band, athletics, & more. We also have resource specialists for special & gifted education. Parent involvement is huge – my daughter’s classroom alone has at least seven parent volunteers. Class sizes are small & our children truly have the opportunity to grow up together & contribute their individual abilities towards this community.

That’s just a sampling what you’ll find in the immediate area. There’s much more in Sebastopol & Santa Rosa. And we’re still only an hour & 15 minutes (if you time it right) from San Francisco, Berkeley, & Oakland.

… And the downsides

Alas, the Russian River definitely has its downsides. Although we’re only about 60 miles from San Francisco & 20 miles from Santa Rosa, this area can still sometimes feel remote. There are basically only two ways out of here – River Road & Route 116 & -- depending on where you live – a few back roads. If there’s an accident or road construction (which you can look up on CalTrans’ Web site), you’ll need to find an alternative route &/or add 15-30 minutes to your trip.

And, yes, we do sometimes have floods, though it isn’t nearly as bad as outsiders think. Most homes are away from the flood-line (or have been raised above it, thanks to Russian River Redevelopment funds). We don’t have flash floods & hence have plenty of time to prepare (basically, we need 10 straight days of rain for a major flood to occur). But when a flood seems imminent, you will need to decide whether to stay in, or stay out. You should also keep a stash of emergency supplies around, just in case.

You really need to be laid-back & tolerant in order to live here, because you’ll have all sorts of neighbors, including: aging hippies, nouveau hippies, bikers, bible-thumpers, rednecks, Latinos, senior citizens, registered Republicans, & meth addicts, along with the cast of characters you already know from the city: young professionals, foodies, middle-class families, ultra-liberals registered with the Democrats or Green Party, Latinos, Sikhs, gays, lesbians, artists, musicians, writers, & … yes … a sizeable homeless population. And these are just the human neighbors. Prepare yourself for deer (who adore late-night snacks from your garden), brown recluse spiders, poison oak, wild pigs, raccoons, possums, & more.

And, yes, the Russian River does have the reputation as the methamphetamine capitol of Sonoma County, though much of this nefarious activity has moved up north, to Clear Lake & Mendocino counties. Alas, crystal meth has cursed rural areas in recent years, just as crack began wreaking havoc upon urban areas 20 years ago. Potential renters & homebuyers seriously need to take a look at who their neighbors will be, before making an offer on their home. On the other hand, we don’t have gangs out here & (as a parent), that’s a HUGE plus for me. When push comes to shove, I strongly prefer disorganized crime to organized crime.

You’ll also need to slow down. Way down. Rude city habits like tailgating; huffing impatiently when the person in front of you chats leisurely with the cashier while writing a check (yes, people actually do write paper checks around here); or making vehement political statements with the assumption that everyone shares your liberal views (many do, but some don’t), can quickly make you a social pariah. Folks around here are generally kind & tolerant towards one another as a matter of necessity, as well as personal inclination: You never know when you might run into someone again … or need their cooperation or help.

Career-wise, you’ll need to do some planning & research. We do have a reasonable job base with a handful of local employers & professional jobs only 30-40 minutes away in Sebastopol & Santa Rosa. Some folks hang on to their city jobs – it helps to have an employer who is flexible & allows telecommuting. If your job requires lots of travel, it may not matter so much where your home base is located. Many people successfully own restaurants, retail & other small businesses out here, but things can get tough during recessions & during our “off” season.

Also, you need to be aware that many properties around here are kind of “funky”, because many of them were built as summer vacation homes, not for year ‘round use. Keep an eye out for odd layouts, lack of insulation, & wood burning stoves as the only heating source (very charming & highly economical, but a pain in the neck for those who don’t enjoy chopping wood & sweeping ashes). Also, we don’t have natural gas out here, we have propane, which is more expensive – especially if your propane provider owns your tank & rents out its use to you.

For homes that aren’t hooked up to Guerneville’s sewer, septic systems can be a major issue. In general, septic is cheaper … until you have a problem or need to increase your capacity – which is often difficult or impossible to do in compliance with today’s more stringent codes.

Our abundant redwood trees are both a blessing & a curse. They provide beauty, privacy & shade, but they are also like giant weeds: they are highly aggressive, grow shockingly fast, & sprout out new saplings from their roots at a brisk rate as these giant Ents attempt to surround your home in a fairy ring. They have long & extensive networks of roots, so you’ll need to make sure they won’t potentially undermine your foundation. Redwoods growing within 5 feet of your house may prove hazardous to your home & eventually need to be removed (an expensive undertaking – renting the crane alone can cost $1500+). The redwoods drop huge amounts of leaves, branches & other debris on your roof & your car over the course of a year. Prepare to spend a few hundred per year on “limbing” & other maintenance to remove dead branches, keep the trees healthy, & ensure that your property receives a reasonable amount of sunlight. Fortunately, the Russian River abounds with good arborists.

Doing remodels & repairs may prove more expensive than you think. Although we have lots of good contractors who charge less than you would pay in the Bay Area, I’ve discovered that the Permits & Resources Management Department (PRMD) in Sonoma County is even harder to deal with than the one in our former city of BERKELEY (& that says a lot). Not only are they bureaucratic & uncooperative, they also have a reputation for giving people a hard time about previous & totally unrelated work that was done years before you bought your place. I do, however, appreciate the fact that SoCo’s PRMD has made their entire set of building codes available online. Also, there has been a new wave of young & eager hires, freshly graduated from the top planning programs at universities like Berkeley & Portland, OR, who are pushing for reforms & inclusion of new technologies & greener systems in the building codes.

If you think that your property taxes will be less onerous than what you’re paying in the city, think again. The percentage levied on the value of your home (what you pay for it) will be higher than what you would pay for a similarly priced home in the city (though there ARE no “similarly priced” homes in the city), because: (a) the cost of our services is distributed amongst fewer people; & (b) according to many long-time residents, Sonoma County’s government is evil, corrupt, & venal. On the other hand, you really do come to have an understanding of & intimate relationship with where your tax dollars are going, because many of the folks who provide these services are your friends & neighbors – who are all in the same boat & pay the same taxes as you do – & they care about this community & work awfully hard to make things right.

If you are still interested in buying a home here:

The Russian River isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve always felt drawn to this place, go for it. The natural beauty is incomparable. We did it three-and-a-half years ago & have few regrets, even though we bought close to the top of the market & have gained little – if any – equity (it helps that we have a 30-year fixed mortgage with a low interest rate & that we’re definitely here for the long haul).

  • First of all, you need a SAVVY REALTOR who really knows this area & all the different neighborhoods & types of homes & who can steer you away from the potential pitfalls. Ideally, your realtor should actually LIVE here on the Russian River, have strong connections with some local contractors, & have a good understanding of what it’ll REALLY cost to fix things that turn up in the inspection reports.
  • Make sure your potential home has decent INSULATION (many don’t). Otherwise your energy costs will go through the ROOF (literally as well as figuratively) during the winter. Our heavy winter rains also make our homes prone to rot & mold.
  • DON’T buy a place as a vacation home & assume that you can defray the costs by offering summer rentals unless you have deep pockets &/or really know what you’re doing. It’s hard to profit from rentals when carrying a mortgage. Plus, there’s maintenance, taxes, etc.
  • If you’re handy & willing to build “sweat equity,” you can get a good deal on a “fixer.” But you’ll need patience, because you’ll probably need to stay for several years (fix-&-flip people need not apply). You’ll also need some cash for the repairs, because home equity loans are hard to come by these days.
  • Unlike San Francisco, Berkeley, & the Peninsula, you can actually negotiate with sellers around here when making an offer. Invest in all the appropriate inspections. Make sure that all work done to your house was done with a permit. If it wasn’t, negotiate for a lower price.
  • Homebuyers are often floored when their first property tax statement arrives! To avoid this unpleasant surprise (& have sufficient funds set aside), review your future home’s property tax statement. Although the previous owner’s assessment will be considerably lower than yours, you can go through the list of items & percentages & do the math.
  • “Funny financing” schemes like ARMS, 100% financing, liar loans, etc., can get you in trouble on the Russian River. Even when the real estate market is sizzling, homes take at least 3 months to sell. Oh, well. The banks probably don’t offer these types of loans anymore. You need to do conventional financing (20% down, 30-year-fixed) & be able to afford the payments at least somewhat comfortably. Fortunately, this is entirely possible on the Russian River, if you plan things right.

Still interested? For more information about the Russian River & to get an idea of what it’s like out here, visit the following Web sites:

*When I mention “the Russian River,” I’m mostly referring to the three towns located within the Russian River Redevelopment Area: Rio Nido, Guerneville, & Monte Rio. This is where I live & what I know best. More “official” folks, like Craigs’ List, wine makers within the “Russian River” appellation, & local realtors also consider parts of Healdsburg, parts of Windsor, the unincorporated part of Santa Rosa, Forestville, Occidental, Camp Meeker, Duncan’s Mills, Cazadero, & Jenner to be the “Russian River.”

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rest in peace, Roman Alexandrovich Jones

April 20th, 4:00pm, Rio Nido, CA -- My daughter & I were enjoying a nice, late-afternoon dip at the Rio Nido Pool, when chaos suddenly erupted with shrill sirens & the deafening roar of helicopters circling overhead. The cheerful mood flattened because we all knew what it meant: The River has claimed another human soul.

Sure enough, an article appeared on SFGATE the next day: Russian River drowning victim identified. The 24-year-old man’s name was Roman Alexandrovich Jones (friends called him “RJ”), he lived in Monte Rio & worked at the Northwood Restaurant. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s article, obnoxiously headlined, Drowning victim was celebrating rebate check, said Mr. Jones had “had consumed large amounts of alcohol” that day.” Otherwise, it was generally sympathetic towards Mr. Jones & his parents in New Mexico, who had adopted him from one of those notorious Russian orphanages at age 9.

According to his parents, Mr. Roman’s rough early childhood & initial lack of English made it hard for him to adjust in school, & he sometimes seemed troubled. He up & moved here rather suddenly, stayed in touch only sporadically with his folks, & appears to have been somewhat lost & drifting (as so many of us are in our 20’s). Based on local gossip & comments made to the news articles, Mr. Roman seems to have been well-liked & to have a good reputation.

A friend of Mr. Jones', whose handle is justtoamuseu, wrote on the SFGATE Web site:

I personally knew "RJ", and he was a very clean-cut man. I did not know him to have any serious alchohol problem. I am very saddened by the whole event and intend on finding out through other friends what happened to him, I found this story very strange also, because there are conflicting versions of the accident. The press democrat stated in yesterday's paper that he was with a friend.... nothing was said about there being a pier, that I recall. He was very physically fit and intelligent, speaking four different languages. He will be deeply missed.

Although I didn’t know RJ Jones, I feel sad about this incident & offer my sincere condolences to his friends & family. The Russian River is so beautiful & nurturing in so many ways that we often forget how dangerous it can be. So now, I’ll go into my obnoxious blah-dee-blah lecture. As a mother, I feel that nagging is my role & privilege in life.


The Russian River is beautiful & the water is cool & refreshing. But it is also unpredictable, runs swiftly, & has weird little whirlpools, rip currents, & underwater debris which can catch even the most experienced & sober swimmer by surprise.

  • If you go swimming off a private dock, or one of our lovely, unofficial “secret beaches,” ALWAYS bring a “swimming buddy” along with you.
  • Also, scan the water beforehand so you can avoid those odd little ripples & whirling eddies, which can signify swift undercurrents (which can drag you down) &/or large debris (which can catch on you & keep you down).
  • I don’t recommend any serious swimming before July, because the water’s cold & can cause even good swimmers to cramp up.
  • Stay alert & keep an eye on things, even at the public beaches, because few of them have any lifeguards.
  • If you’re in a boat, ALWAYS wear a life vest & make sure everyone else does too.
  • If you have kids, you need to keep an eye on them at all times & keep them away from areas that look rough or where you can’t see the bottom.
  • If you’re drinking alcohol (or partaking in other inebriating substances), don’t go in, or at least stay in the shallows near the shore.
  • Be aware that when you – or your companions -- dial 911 from a cell phone, you get California Highway Patrol (not the local emergency responders). It often takes forever to get through & when you do, they’ll need to tell them where you are. This means that you need KEEP TRACK OF WHERE YOU ARE.
  • Consider taking courses in Water Safety, First Aid, & CPR. They’re offered frequently & inexpensively in most communities. Swimming lessons are also a good idea, for adults as well as kids.
  • PLEASE don’t let your children go to the River unsupervised, even if they know how to swim. At least wait until Parks & Recreation puts up the summer dams & go with your kids the first few times to scope out the water & tell them where they can & cannot go.
  • Those rope swings along our shores are awfully fun, but DON’T swing until you test the waters. Since we didn’t have much rainfall this year, the water is probably too shallow for jumping off the rope swings, any way.
  • If you take your kids to my favorite spot on the River side of Goat Rock Beach (facing the charming little town of Jenner), watch them like hawks! It’s fairly safe there (at least when Nibbles the elephant seal isn’t around), but the ocean is just a hop, skip & a jump away.
  • Speaking of the Pacific Ocean … although we do have some safe, “swimming beaches,” (like Doran Beach & Salmon Creek in Bodega Bay), it is generally NOT safe to swim or play tag with the waves around here -- & in most of coastal California. Our East Coast & European visitors REALLY don’t get it, because they’re used to the Atlantic Ocean, which has a long & shallow continental shelf. Out here, we don’t have that. The Pacific Ocean goes from knee-deep to WAY-deep in a matter of yards & can sweep you away or dash you against the rocks in no time flat. As for all those surfers gaily cavorting amongst the waves … they’re highly experienced in the water around here & even they’ll admit that they’re totally insane (as my surfer friend once explained, “If a surfer gets attacked by a shark, & it isn’t bad enough to go to the hospital, he’ll go back in.”
  • NEVER, NEVER jump off that danged Hacienda bridge! I know it’s tempting. But every single year, someone seems to die or become permanently maimed from doing this!
With all that said, the Russian River is beautiful & offers many opportunities for summer fun. And of course folks who like to fish, bird watch & otherwise enjoy nature will want to get away from the crowds. But please remember that Mother Nature runs this fabulous playground -- not Walt Disney. Out of the thousands of people who enjoy the River each summer, only a handful encounter mishaps. Nonetheless, every single one of these incidents greatly saddens me, & I pray we don't have any more of them.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

You know you're a River Rat when ...

You know you're a River Rat (or Rattina) when

  1. Your daughter wants to do her nails, clothes, & make-up just like the guy at the coffee shop.
  2. Your neighbor always has an extra two-by-four when you really need one.
  3. Your other neighbor has offered to do your astrological chart.
  4. Shopping trips to Safeway often become major social events.
  5. Your children can readily identify poison oak by age 3.
  6. Septic systems are a highly appropriate & exciting topic for conversation.
  7. You have a chicken coop in your back yard.
  8. You frequently come home to blinking digital clocks. Thank you, PG&E!
  9. When a giant redwood grows too close to your house, you do the sensible thing & remodel your home to accommodate the redwood tree.
  10. Summer family walks take hours because the kids keep stopping to pick blackberries, plums, & apricots growing along the side of the road.
  11. You have a favorite “secret beach” somewhere along the River.
  12. You actually KNOW what all those “NO LOW FLOW” signs mean, & it seriously matters to you.
  13. You really miss the Halloween pumpkin festival at the farm on Westside Road (which has become yet another winery).
  14. Speaking of wineries, you helped BUILD them, & now their wine is too danged expensive for you to drink.
  15. You have a lovely hobby vineyard in your back yard, behind the chicken coop & the old, rusty camper.
  16. Or, you grow other things in your back yard.
  17. You’ve lived here for 10 years & your older neighbors still refer to you as “the new people down the road.”
  18. You can't tailgate the annoyingly slow driver in front of you, because she waits tables at your favorite restaurant.
  19. You have a KGGV FM bumper sticker on your car.
  20. You care deeply about water quality in the River, but still sometimes wind up pee-ing in the River.

Got any new ones? I’d love to read them. Please post your ideas in the COMMENTS section. Also, feel free to email this to your friends, but PLEASE include a link to my blog!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Summer happenings in Rio Nido

Summer is coming & Rio Nido has a lively assortment of fun, family-oriented events & other things to do throughout the summer. Unless otherwise indicated, the happenings listed below take place in our picnic area, between Rio Nido & Canyon Seven roads, which run (somewhat) straight from River Road. The Rio Nido Homeowners’ Association (RNHA) hosts these events & welcomes everyone to join in the fun, whether you’re living in the area or just visiting. I also encourage locals to join RNHA & have more information below.

For those of you who’ve never heard of Rio Nido, we’re an eclectic, rural, small-town enclave tucked into a series of canyons along the Russian River & sheltered by our abundant & beautiful redwood trees. The name is Spanish for “River’s Nest.” We have a strong sense of community, perhaps because we don’t get mail delivery & hence frequently gather at our local post office, where we almost always hear about local happenings & gossip first. Patty the Post Mistress sells tea & cappuccino along with postage stamps, has written a riveting occult-thriller novel (Raven: the Praying Bird,) & can also provide you with a complete astrological chart for $15. She’s amazing.

We’re located 2 miles east of Guerneville (the largest town in our area), just a mile or two West of the famed Korbel Winery, off of River Road.


Once again, these events are hosted between Rio Nido Road & Canyon Seven Road (off of River Road) in the main picnic area, except for the golf tournament. Once you turn in, we're hard to miss. If you live in Rio Nido, PLEASE consider joining our neighborhood association (informaiton provided below):

  • Memorial Day Chicken Barbecue, Sunday May 25th: Food: 4pm-7pm ($8.00 adult, $5.00 child). Music & dancing: 5pm-9pm
  • Fourth of July Hot Dog & Hamburger Barbecue, Saturday July 5th: Food: 5pm-8pm $5.00 per plate; Music & Dancing: 5pm-9pm
  • Rio Nido Cleanup Day: Saturday July 12th: Join us at the Rio Nido BBQ area & bring gloves & a paper bag. I still need to get the time & details from Cleanup Committee Chair, Domenic Farnocchia, but I’ll keep you posted.
  • Pancake Breakfast: Sunday July 20th: Breakfast 9am-12noon. Adults $6.00, Child $3.00
  • Rio Nido Homeowners Golf Tournament, Saturday August 9th: Northwood Golf Club, starting at 9am. 2-player Better Ball format (no handicap). $80 per player. Includes: 18 holes, cart & BBQ at Rio Nido BBQ area after game. To sign up, list the names & addresses of the players, include a check payable to the Rio Nido Homeowners Association, & snail mail to RNHA P.O. Box #A, Rio Nido, CA. For more information, contact Troy Held at troymheld at yahoo dot com (this is not formatted as a link because I don’t want the poor guy to get automatically-generated spam)
  • Pancake Breakfast & Art Festival, Sunday August 17th: Breakfast 9am-12noon. Adults; $6.00, Child $3.00; Rio Nido Art Festival 10am-3pm
  • Rio Nido Homeowners Association (RNHA) General Membership Meeting, Saturday August 30th at 11am.
  • Labor Day Chicken Barbecue, Sunday August 31st: Food: 4pm-7pm ($8.00 adult, $5.00 child). Music & dancing: 5pm-9pm
  • MARSHMALLOW ROASTS THROUGHOUT THE SUMMER on Saturday June 21st, July 12th, July 26th, & August 10th: For good, wholesome family fun, join our gracious hosts, Domenic & Suzanne Farnocchia for roasting marshmallows by a roaring campfire, followed by a rated G movie (maybe PG, if they’re feeling kind of wild).
  • RIO NIDO MINI GOLF – OPEN WEEKEND EVENINGS Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend: Our mini golf course isn’t as fancy as the one on Drake Road near downtown Guerneville (which is wonderful & seems well on its way towards becoming designated as an historical landmark), but it’s fun, charmingly designed, is in walking distance for folks who live or vacation in the neighborhood, it costs only .50 cents per play, & it’s RNHA member Susie Markham’s labor of love. The kids adore it – plus, it keeps them occupied & somewhat corralled during our events. There’s even a small rec-room with kids’ games & inexpensive candy, chips & sodas for sale.
  • RIO NIDO ROADHOUSE POOL, RESTAURANT, BAR, & MUSIC all summer long: Thanks to the new owners, Leanne & Brad, we still have our fun, cool, & fabulous local pool & snack bar, which are open to the public. They also run a bar & restaurant with good food for reasonable prices, & host an eclectic assortment of melodic & danceable bands on Saturday nights for a modest $5.00 per adult (kids are free) in their attractive, enclosed picnic area.
  • Cool, shady playground: We also have a lovely little playground & picnic area with a circular path for scooters, roller skates, & bicycles/tricycles, which goes over a charming little bridge for our seasonal creek. It’s located a couple of “blocks” north of our picnic area, post office & fire station.

IF YOU’RE A VISITOR OR NEWCOMER: Bring along some extra cash to the holiday events, because you may want to buy a Rio Nido T-Shirt or Sweat shirt with a picture of our winking moon; purchase a yummy dessert from the baked goods table; treat your kids to minigolf; or wet your whistle with some beer, wine, or a mixed drink. You’ll also need an extra layer, because it gets cool here at night. If you have kids & feel nostalgic for the sort of fun, small-town summers you enjoyed as a child, Rio Nido is definitely the place to go – especially during summer holidays.

There are also tons of festivals throughout our area throughout the summer & a lively fireworks show on July 4th weekend in downtown Guerneville. For events listings, visit the Russian River Chamber of Commerce in downtown Guerneville or check their Web site at . If you want to stay here in Rio Nido, consider a vacation rental through Balaika Guest Homes or D&G Equities. These folks are reliable & have a good selection of rentals in this area.

IF YOU LIVE HERE - Please support the RNHA – Become a member: Do you live, work, or own property in Rio Nido or on Rio Nido Road (which is basically in Rio Nido, despite the Guerneville zip code)? If so, PLEASE join the RNHA. All you need to join is $15, a membership form with your contact information (RNHA has them at the booth at all the major events), & a pulse. Your yearly membership dues will help support all these events; maintenance of our picnic area (which is available year-round) & mini golf course. You will also periodically receive an RNHA newsletter with local news & upcoming events (it seems to come out about four times per year). Despite the organization’s name, renters are also welcome to join. For more information & sign-up forms, please visit the RNHA table at one of our holiday events, or write to: Rio Nido Homeowners’ Association, PO Box A, Rio Nido, CA 95471.