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Sonoma County looks to boost renewable energy at homes, businesses

Sonoma County planners are considering whether to relax zoning rules, increase housing densities and reduce parking requirements as ways to encourage more renewable energy generation, such as solar and wind projects.

The options were outlined during a public hearing by the Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday, the first of two to be held.

"Everybody agrees that the more energy generation you create the better," said Jason Liles, planning commission chairman. "We are trying to make it easier for residences and businesses to create power."

One option would open up non-prime agriculture land to commercial development of facilities such as solar parks, but the intent is to protect prime agriculture land, scenic corridors and sensitive natural resources.

"We don't have the same commercial viability as deserts; I don't see us having the huge solar installations they have in the valley," deputy planning director Jennifer Barrett said.

Barrett, however, is proposing creation of special renewable energy zoning areas for commercial projects on agricultural and other lands that are near existing power infrastructure such as transmission lines or electrical substations.

Bill Smith of Healdsburg urged that agriculture be protected.

"We do need to be very careful about agriculture lands; it could have a devastating effect," he said.

Barrett also is recommending that developers of large-scale commercial energy projects pay sales taxes in Sonoma County for the machinery that is purchased, regardless of where it is bought.

On a recently approved project for a new plant in The Geysers, the tax has been estimated to be $1.2 million, she said.

The new proposals would allow unlimited solar power on any rooftop, whether it is a home, business, covered parking structure, barn or warehouse, as long as it is an allowed building that can hold the weight.

Liles said that creates a huge potential for generating electricity that can be used within the county, sold to PG&E or sold to a new Sonoma County power agency that is being considered by the Board of Supervisors.

Another proposal allows solar panels, wind turbines, biomass plants and other energy facilities that are mounted on the ground to be installed if they provide 125 percent of energy demand for that on-site use.

Also, the county is proposing to allow businesses to reduce the amount of parking required if they provide electric vehicle charging stations, showers and bicycle lockers.

Residential developers also would be allowed to increase housing densities for projects that include on-site renewable energy systems that provide power to meet a third of the demand.

The second public hearing will be at 1:05 p.m. Thursday at the county Permit and Resource Management Department. The proposals are expected to go to the Board of Supervisors early next year.

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