Supervisors support eased zoning regs for farm vendors

In a move intended to help small farming operations and encourage agricultural startups in Sonoma County, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously passed an ordinance that significantly reduces the cost and time to obtain zoning permits.

“We have always talked about one of the biggest hurdles in getting small farm operations going is getting the county out of the way,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire.

Going forward, permits required for county growers and producers who want to sell goods on agricultural land year-round instead of just seasonally, and who want to sell manufactured products like cheese, jams, or packaged meats will be able to get started faster, for a fraction of the price.

Permits that previously cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 were reduced to around $600.

“Under the current code, all agricultural processing — no matter how small and minor — would require a full use permit,” said David Schiltgen, a land use planner with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “The costs are so burdensome that they discourage small-scale operations and farms are struggling to survive.”

“That’s the problem we’re solving,” Schiltgen added.

Supervisors two years ago directed county planners to prioritize a new framework, easing regulatory requirements for farmers to sell their products directly to consumers.

“Sonoma County has such an excellent reputation for knowing where our food is grown and where it’s produced — we’ve been rooting for this for some years,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “The idea is to make it easier and more accessible for a local business person to start that business from the family farm.”

The ordinance won support from agricultural groups throughout the county, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Farm Trails.

“This will help encourage young and future generations of farmers, because there will be ways for farm families to increase their income, keeping more family members involved and interested,” said Tim Tesconi, the Farm Bureau’s executive director. He said the change “expands our county’s reputation as a specialty food mecca.”

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