Sonoma County environmentalist Bill Kortum dies at 87

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Bill Kortum, a veterinarian who helped lead the seminal battle to protect public access to the California coast and spent most of his life fighting to rein in sprawl and preserve open space in his native Sonoma County, died early Saturday at his Petaluma home. He was 87.

Soft-spoken and gentlemanly even in the political cauldron, Kortum’s decades of relentless activism made him the dean of the local environmental movement — one he both led and helped conceive. He grew up on a chicken ranch outside Petaluma and became an early cautionary voice against the unchecked growth that marked much of his era. In countless public meetings, he challenged the bankers and builders who openly embraced the vision of replicating San Jose-style development in Sonoma County.

By his own reckoning, Kortum lost more battles than he won over six decades of activism. But through his efforts, including his election in 1974 to Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, he became one of the most influential figures in conservation on the North Coast.

“He’s one of the grand old men of the environmental movement in California,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that has funded more than $1.5 billion in coastal protection projects since 1976. “It’s hard to imagine a modern California environmental movement without him.”

Kortum had battled prostate cancer for more than three years.

His activism underpinned environmental politics in the county from their very start — in a successful fight during the late 1950s and early 1960s against PG&E’s planned nuclear power plant at Bodega Bay. He led ensuing campaigns that resulted in the voter-approved formation of the California Coastal Commission in 1972 and related legislation four years later that extended to the public unprecedented rights to access the state’s 1,100 miles of shoreline and closely oversee its development.

“Anyone who’s gone out and enjoyed the coast, pulled over and sat there and looked at the waves and the rocks, owes a debt of gratitude to Bill,” said Mike Reilly, a former west county supervisor and Coastal Commission chairman.

The Kortum Trail, which runs from Blind Beach to Wright’s Beach south of Jenner, was named in Kortum’s honor in the 1990s.

A descendant of a Donner Party survivor and a child of the Great Depression, Kortum nevertheless saw his efforts as a sustained attempt to break away from the past — from values and policies that allowed rough treatment of land and resources — to shape a future that would preserve more than a little of the open landscape he knew from his youth.

As a young veterinarian based in Cotati, he made rounds to local dairy ranches that were falling steadily to development, part of the postwar growth spurt that quadrupled the county’s population in the second half of the 20th century.

“I saw it absolutely being cut to ribbons by developers,” Kortum said in an oral history video recorded in 2010 and archived at Sonoma State University. “I wanted to stop that.”

And he did, to a considerable degree, with help from a burgeoning corps of environmentalists who transformed local politics and helped set aside more and more of the county’s open space.

His master stroke in that effort was the establishment of Sonoma County Conservation Action in 1991, a canvassing organization that mobilized local voters in support of urban growth boundaries. The limits on sprawl now ring every city in Sonoma County — a first in the nation as of 2010, when Cloverdale, the last of the county’s nine cities, approved restraints on leapfrog outward development.

Without such limits, Sonoma County “would look a lot more like San Mateo or Alameda County,” said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilman and chairman of Conservation Action, now the largest local environmental group.

“Bill’s vision, insistence and strategic planning were critical for UGBs to take hold for voters in all nine cities,” Keller said.

For much of Kortum’s early life, Sonoma County was a Republican stronghold governed by businessmen, bankers, developers and their allies, who were riding the postwar boom of the 1950s and ’60s during an era of minimal land use regulations. His family, however, were Democrats, and political activism ran deep in their ranks. His father, Max Kortum, fought off a proposal to push Highway 101 through the family ranch in the early 1940s, and the elder Kortum later ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Bill Kortum would make his own unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1970 and would have his tenure as supervisor cut short by a recall in 1976.

Karl Kortum, Bill’s older brother, who founded the Maritime Museum in San Francisco, was one of the key leaders of the campaign against the PG&E nuclear plant at Bodega Bay. That victory is generally considered the birth of the anti-nuclear power movement in California.

“For me, it was a great lesson that you could take on a giant and win,” Bill Kortum said in the 2010 oral history interview.

Thanks to Kortum, a sweetheart deal to seal off public access to 10 miles of the Sonoma Coast was stymied in the 1960s, leading to unprecedented protection for the entire California coast.

“He was an inspiration to all of us,” said Peter Leveque, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College biology instructor and longtime friend. “A prince of a man,” Leveque said, praising Kortum’s gentle demeanor and ability to enlist others in important causes.

Kortum’s forte, he said, was “to have a good idea, get people involved and move onto another project.”

It was in Leveque’s laboratory at SRJC in 1968 where Kortum and others formed a group with the unwieldy name Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands, or COAAST. Their goal was to establish a coastal planning commission to regulate land use at a time when investors were buying large tracts of seaside land to build luxury subdivisions.

A subsidiary of Castle & Cooke, the Hawaiian development company, in 1963 bought a 5,000-acre spread south of Gualala on the Sonoma Coast and proposed building a 5,200-home project called The Sea Ranch. County supervisors, under questionable circumstances, accepted the developer’s proposal to swap land for a 120-acre park at the mouth of the Gualala River in exchange for giving up public shoreline access through the subdivision.

Kortum and COAAST objected, but lost a local ballot measure to thwart the deal in 1968, and the following June county planners approved the first maps for The Sea Ranch.

“The battle isn’t over,” Kortum declared at the time.

Taking the fight to Sacramento, Kortum found an ally in then-Assemblyman John Dunlap, a Napa Democrat. “It struck me as being for the birds,” Dunlap said, referring to the no-access deal.

Dunlap’s coastal public access bill, introduced in 1969, went nowhere in the face of opposition from utility companies, real estate interests and local government organizations: “All the big boys in Sacramento,” Kortum said.

One of the power players, confident his side would prevail, suggested they put the measure on a statewide ballot. Kortum was at Dunlap’s house in Napa when the concept for Proposition 20 — creating the state Coastal Commission and taking control of seaside development away from local government — was hatched for the 1972 ballot. With a boost from then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown, who highlighted the hefty special- interest donations to defeat the measure, Proposition 20 was approved by 55 percent of state voters.

It was the first law of its kind in the nation and it brought plans for subdivisions on dozens of sprawling coastal properties “to a grinding halt,” said the late Peter Douglas, who served as chairman of the Coastal Commission for 25 years. The commission ultimately cut the number of Sea Ranch lots by more than half and mandated multiple public access points.

Reilly, who served on the Coastal Commission for 12 years ending in 2009, said it was the “world’s largest planning commission” with jurisdiction “over the most expensive dirt on Earth.” Absent that control, the Sonoma Coast “would look like Malibu,” he said, lined with subdivisions from Jenner to Bodega Bay.

Kevin Starr, California’s state librarian emeritus, said Kortum’s success in protecting the coast was “an astonishing achievement.”

At a 1996 meeting in Mendocino, Kortum told an audience why he fought so hard for coastal access. “Every community needs a commons,” he said. “Without being able to share the coast, the only commons we have in California is the freeways.”

Born on July 22, 1927, and raised at the edge of Petaluma, William M. Kortum and his siblings, including his brother, Karl, and sister, Maxine, grew up roaming the land, though they were warned by their father that such freedom would eventually disappear.

As a student in Petaluma High School’s agriculture program, Kortum built his own tractor and a small milking barn, both of which remain at his Ely Road home, one he helped design and build, and where he tended an expansive vegetable and flower garden and made his own wine.

Kortum left high school during his senior year to serve in the Merchant Marines at the end of World War II. He attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated from veterinary school at UC Davis in 1953.

Kortum married Lucy Deam the same year. The couple had been introduced the previous summer on the family ranch by Kortum’s brother and his wife, Jean, a friend of Lucy’s. Their first dates consisted of ranch chores, including fence painting, Lucy Kortum recalled.

The couple raised their three children at the Ely Road home next to the family ranch.

After veterinary school, Kortum was drafted into the Army and assigned to the veterinary corps, stationed out of Oakland.

He returned to Sonoma County and started Cotati Veterinary Hospital in 1956.

Kortum joined the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee in 1957, and in the early 1960s, as president of the Cotati Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded Cotati’s incorporation as a city and the campaign to secure a site along Petaluma Hill Road for Sonoma State College, which opened in 1961 and later became Sonoma State University.

His personal entry into politics in 1970 — the same year Earth Day was first celebrated — sprang directly from his environmental leanings, but he did not fare as well on the campaign trail or in office as he did in advocacy. Kortum lost that year by 46,000 votes to incumbent Republican Congressman Don Clausen, who held the North Coast seat for 20 years until 1982.

At the time, Sonoma County’s population had surpassed 200,000, twice what it had been in 1950, and it would double again by the early 1990s. Urban growth during those postwar boom years was considered a sign of economic health and local government was dominated by business leaders and agriculture and development interests.

“I was fighting to preserve our environment when politicians weren’t even aware that a problem existed,” Kortum said in 2010.

In 1974, he challenged and beat conservative south county Supervisor Phil Joerger, a supporter of the Warm Springs Dam project that created Lake Sonoma. The reservoir west of Healdsburg would hold enough water to sustain the “growth of 600,000 more people,” Kortum said at the time, voicing concerns about what he saw as unsustainable development.

He joined a Board of Supervisors with fellow environmentalist Chuck Hinkle, who two years earlier had upset Santa Rosa Mayor Jerry Poznanovich to win the central county supervisor’s seat. Hinkle was a blunt and confrontational politician who riled critics, and having two green-minded members on the board rattled the business establishment to its core. Just nine months after the election, the Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association board voted 22-0 to seek the recall of Hinkle and Kortum.

The recall succeeded in June 1976, ending Kortum’s 18-month term in office. He and Hinkle were replaced by more conservative politicians, both of whom lost in the general election, paving the way in 1977 for the board’s first environmental majority — Helen Rudee, Brian Kahn and Eric Koenigshofer — and marking a historic shift in county politics.

Kortum took his recall in stride, Leveque said. “He still held his head high and worked for things that were dear to him,” he said.

His subsequent campaigns — for growth boundaries around cities, open space protection and strong land-use planning — were among the most influential factors shaping the look of the county’s landscape today, forestalling county projections that once envisioned the area as home to up to 1.5 million people by the end of this decade. About 490,000 people now reside in Sonoma County.

“I used to tease Bill years ago,” said Koenigshofer, the former county supervisor. “‘Bill, why don’t you just declare victory? You won.’”

Former Santa Rosa City Manager Ken Blackman, who sometimes found himself politically aligned against Kortum, praised the activist’s dedication, depth of knowledge and professionalism.

“When he got up at meetings … he spoke from a knowledgeable standpoint versus making accusations that were completely unfounded,” Blackman said. “I don’t believe the business community types of that day felt that Bill would manufacture facts to support his view, and this is what gave him credibility.

“I’ve never heard a harsh word about Bill Kortum,” Blackman said. “His tenacity got to be a pain in the neck, at times, but it was not a mean-spirited tenacity.”

In addition to his wife, Lucy, he is survived by daughter Julie Groves of Los Gatos; sons Frank Kortum of Glendale and Sam Kortum of New Haven, Conn.; and five grandchildren.

In recent years he campaigned for completion of the Sonoma-Marin commuter rail line and the California Coastal Trail, as well as for public access to Petaluma’s Lafferty Ranch.

As close friends visited in recent weeks, some promising to bring food, Kortum had one last entreaty, according to Groves, his daughter. “He said, ‘Skip the soup. Get Lafferty open.’ ”

He remained modest about his achievements and ever- aware of the fights he lost. “I win only 30 percent of them,” he said in the oral history interview

He ultimately credited the county’s demographic transition over his lifetime, including an influx of more liberal voters, with the new outlook favoring a lighter hand on the environment.

“They came here many times because of its beauty, its attributes, and they saw the old- timers not realizing what a jewel they had,” he said.

A memorial is planned for early next year. Donations may be made to Sonoma County Conservation Action, Coastwalk California or Lafferty Donations Room to Roam, attention Lafferty Park.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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