Waterways protection vs. Personal property

A thin, green, grassy line snaking across his 400-acre dairy ranch west of Santa Rosa fills third-generation

dairyman Doug Beretta with a sense of unease.

Barely dipping into the flat hayfield along Llano Road, the unnamed channel, typically dry for half the year, is one of countless seasonal streams that Sonoma County planners say need a new level of protection.

For Beretta, 42, a lean man with a vise-grip handshake, the proposed safeguards are a threat to his way of life on the land, amid the dust, manure and the slow ways of 300 Holstein and Jersey milk cows.

"Why are they telling us how to run our property and put more restrictions on us?" Beretta said. For nearly 60 years, his family has worked the ranch, maintaining a haven for deer, rabbits, coyotes and geese on the plain less than a mile from the edge of fast-growing southwest Santa Rosa.

"It gets right back to property rights," Beretta said. "We pay taxes on it."

Ranchers such as Beretta and other landowners have packed a theater at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts for an unlikely midsummer attraction: a series of public hearings over a plan to slap new restrictions on more than 80,000 acres of land along Sonoma County's waterways.

To some, it's a vital step toward defending the streams that flow from verdant hills and across valleys, supporting fish and wildlife, cooling the air, holding back floods and ultimately delivering drinkable water to a growing populace.

"We would be crazy to go forward without protecting these areas," said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist and assistant director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental education and research group.

The waterways are under siege as the county becomes more urban, environmentalists and regulators say.

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