For decades, property owners, environmentalists and policymakers in Sonoma County have been split over how to protect 3,200 miles of streams and creeks outside city boundaries.
The ongoing debate, which some landowners view as a direct threat to their property rights, took a turn in 1989, when the county drafted a new general plan that mandated protections for year-round and seasonal creeks and rivers.
The debate grew especially heated eight years ago, when the county began discussions that would ultimately lead to increased general plan restrictions on farming, grazing and building near streams. Two public hearings at the time drew hundreds of people and packed a theater at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.
Now county planning commissioners are expected to take the next step in settling the standoff, weighing an ordinance that would align county zoning rules with the land-use restrictions spelled out in the general plan. The Planning Commission’s public hearing on the zoning changes is at 1 p.m. Thursday. Any final decision would be up to the Board of Supervisors.
County officials said the proposed zoning changes were designed to reinforce practices already underway.
“We’ve heard a lot of concerns raised by the public, so these new zoning rules would clear up any misunderstanding about what this ordinance would and would not do,” said Jennifer Barrett, a deputy director with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “It might look like we’re adding a whole new code, but what we’re actually doing is changing the language to make it more clear.”
But the action, first proposed last fall, has drawn vehement opposition from some property rights advocates and agricultural interests, led largely by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The 3,000-member group argues that zoning changes restricting farming, grazing and building activities near streams and rivers go further than what was intended during the 2008 general plan discussions.
“I still have lots of concerns,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the Farm Bureau. He said he was worried about limits on grazing and the expansion of setbacks to include the forested canopy below streamside trees.
But environmental advocates and other supporters said zoning changes are needed to back up the county’s general plan and clearly define rules that property owners and farmers must follow on their land. The setbacks would help protect streams and surrounding corridors that offer wildlife habitat, shield pollution and recharge groundwater, supporters said.
“The zoning is a reasonable policy, and it’s hugely important for the protection of endangered fish species and for the health of our waterways,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, the largest local environmental group. “At the end of the day, not everyone is going to be happy, but I’m hopeful commissioners will vote in favor of it.”
The county was set to adopt new rules at a Planning Commission meeting last November, but the policy was pulled back amid vocal complaints lodged by the Farm Bureau and others who said that more regulation would undermine their property rights and potentially reduce their land values. In response, the county formed a 21-member working group to weigh concerns from the county’s agricultural sector and local environmental groups.
At issue in the current debate are two types of restrictions.
The first set is aimed at reducing the flow of pollutants, sediment and pathogens from farms into nearby streams. It would define rules for grazing animals and for the planting and management of cropland near riparian corridors.
The second set of changes would set constraints on development near streams. The proposed setbacks, extending on each side of a waterway, range from 200 feet on the Russian River to 50 feet on streams in more urban parts of the county-governed area. The rules cover buildings, decks, fences, landscaping and other improvements.
The new zoning rules would apply only to new projects and uses, and property owners would be able to apply for a range of exemptions.
County officials said the changes would offer property owners clear guidance on the rules that apply to their streamside land.
“Before this, people would have to go to multiple documents to figure this stuff out,” Barrett said.
Sasaki and other critics of the rules gave the working group credit for resolving most of the major issues since last year.
“I think we’re comfortable with what’s being proposed, though there are some finer points that need to be addressed,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, referring to grazing and development rules near tree lines.
“This has little effect on vineyards,” he said, “but from an agricultural standpoint, when you look at the expanse of lands that are being brought under a new wrinkle of control, there’s much more potential for problems to arise with setbacks.”
Stream setbacks long have been one of the most divisive local land-use issues. When it formed the working group last year, the county effectively postponed any decision about the zoning changes until after this year’s primary election.
The two candidates vying to replace Mike McGuire as 4th District supervisor have staked out divergent positions on the issue.
“If I were voting, I would be for the environmental protections,” said Deb Fudge, a Windsor councilwoman who is making her third bid for the north county seat. Fudge has been endorsed by environmental groups, including Conservation Action.
Her rival, former Obama administration appointee James Gore, however, described the proposed rules as overly regulatory, calling them a “hammer without the carrot.”
“I would have to add conservation provisions to it before I would be able to vote for it,” Gore said. Voluntary actions might be more effective, he said. Gore has been endorsed by the Farm Bureau.
Tony Linegar, the county’s agricultural commissioner, who will be responsible for implementing some of the new proposals, is developing a manual to help farmers and ranchers comply with the new rules.
“I have heard concerns expressed from the ag community that some of this was not included in the general plan adopted in 2008,” Linegar said. “Grazing wasn’t included in the original amendments, so that’s an area I think we can expect some resistance.”
David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said that while he feels complaints about the changes have been properly vetted, he still has concerns about the timing of any decision.
“I’m worried about timing because of the crush — it’s harvest time,” said Rabbitt, who was endorsed by the Farm Bureau in his two campaigns for supervisor and who has thrown his support to Gore in the 4th District race. “I want to make sure we get all the input we can at the Planning Commission so we balance our decisions with the input of agricultural folks and property owners.”
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ahartreports.