Supervisors OK zoning rules for renewable energy development

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.

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