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Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday approved zoning rules that they said would ensure a "conservative" and "cautious" approach to renewable energy development on the county's farms, ranches and remote forested lands and hillsides.

The regulations for commercial projects on agricultural property cover more than three-quarters of the county, or more than 700,000 acres.

They will allow projects on about 140,000 agricultural acres where they were previously prohibited. Applicants would have to go through a rezoning process, including hearings before planning commissioners and the Board of Supervisors. They will also ban ground-mounted commercial projects on about 70,000 acres of the highest-value cropland, including mostly vineyards.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman, said the rules protected the county's "strong agricultural heritage" and open space while removing constraints and offering incentives for green energy production.

"I think it really does go to trying to strike that balance that people have been talking about in this county," Rabbitt said.

The zoning code changes deal with solar power, geothermal, bioenergy and wind systems, and clear the way for permitted projects on industrial and commercial parcels.

The new rules also ease generation limits on non-commercial renewable systems installed for homes and businesses and lift them entirely for systems covering roofs or parking areas.

The board's three-hour hearing focused largely on limits for solar systems on agricultural property and remote resource lands.

The issue has divided key farming interests in the county, with some aligning with conservationists in favor of stronger protection and others calling for a lighter, more flexible regulatory touch.

The debate has played out in the lead up to the launch of the county's planned public power agency, an alternative to PG&E that is based on the promise of local green energy generation.

Geof Syphers, the interim chief executive officer for Sonoma Clean Power, acknowledged the challenges inherent in the debate over land protection and energy production, a standoff that is likely to resurface next year in the power agency's own planning efforts.

"It's a tough conversation to have and it's the right conversation to have," Syphers said in his comments to the board.

Supervisors voted 5-0 in favor of tighter rules and greater public input for commercial projects on farms, including largely pasture and ranchland outside of the county's highest-value, valley-bottom properties.

The same regulations will also extend to commercial projects on 395,000 acres of remote resource lands, including ranches and forested properties where projects are currently allowed, though none exist outside of The Geysers geothermal field.

Projects that serve largely as power sources to the given site and those on roofs or over parking areas will be permitted by right of the landowner.

Bob Anderson, a representative for about 250 local grape growers and wineries protested the ban covering many vineyard properties.

But conservationists welcomed the changes, which were tighter than those discussed in May when the board first took up the issue.

"We think it's really wise to take a precautionary approach," said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

The board agreed to revisit the issue in three to five years to determine whether the regulations need to be strengthened or relaxed based on the pace of actual green energy development.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

Need help?

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

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