The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave its formal support to an ordinance that would ban carryout plastic bags at checkout lines countywide and add a 10-cent fee for each paper bag.

The 4-1 vote, with Supervisor David Rabbitt dissenting, constitutes the county's direction to its appointee on the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, the joint county-city body that has been studying and developing the ban for two years and would adopt and enforce the ordinance.

Supervisors said it was long overdue. Similar measures have now been implemented in more than 75 cities and counties across the state. That list now includes Los Angeles, where councilmembers approved a bag ban Tuesday, making it the largest U.S. city to do so.

"In many ways as a county we are really behind the curve here," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the county on the waste management agency board.

The ordinance needs unanimous support from all 10 voting members on the board. Three cities — Sonoma, Windsor and Sebastopol — have given their support so far.

Rohnert Park, where council members have voiced concerns about impacts on businesses, could represent a hurdle. The city council is set to take up the measure June 25.

The regulation is meant to shift consumers to reusable bags to reduce litter and address other environmental impacts. An estimated 260 million plastic bags and 46 million paper bags are used in Sonoma County every year.

American shoppers have favored plastic bags in checkout lines since the late 1970s. But many end up in landfills after a single use or end up cluttering the landscape and water bodies.

"Plastic bags have choked our local streams since their introduction," said Supervisor Mike McGuire. "Moving forward with this ordinance will improve our local environmental conditions for years to come."

Rabbitt, the board chairman, said he was not opposed to a ban on plastic bags, but he voiced opposition to the fee on paper bags, calling it a tax.

"An involuntary fee is a tax. You can't get a bag unless you pay the fee," said Rabbitt. "I just have a philosophical objection to that charge."

The collected paper-bag fees would remain with vendors. Supporters said the charge was needed to push consumers more quickly toward reusable bags.

"I see it as an incentive, an incentive not only to get folks to change their mindset but to learn," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo. "At some point in the future, I think this (shift to reusable bags) will be a really simple thing for folks to do."

The paper bag charge also has helped local governments avoid lawsuits from the plastic bag industry which has argued successfully in past cases that unilateral plastic bag bans simply shift environmental impacts to paper bag production and use. Ordinances with the combined plastic bag ban and paper bag fee have either withstood or sidestepped such court battles.

The ordinance would cover local cities and the unincorporated county. It would affect a wide range of outlets, including grocery, clothing, hardware and drug stores, electronics vendors, convenience and liquor stores.

It would not extend to bags used to hold meat, vegetables or prescriptions, or apply to restaurants or stand-alone delicatessens, thrift stores or other nonprofit charitable operations. It would also not restrict the sale of plastic bags for trash and other uses.

The California Grocers Association has backed countywide measures on carryout bags over patchwork policies by different municipalities. Legislation targeting plastic bags was defeated last month in the state Senate.

In Sonoma County, local governments have clashed over the issue. In 2008, Santa Rosa officials put the brakes on a ban, calling instead for greater recycling of plastic bags.

A 2007 state law requires large supermarkets and drug stores to accept the bags for recycling. The range of bags recycled at those stores is 2 percent to 7 percent, state studies show. No reliable data exists for bag recycling through curbside service, according to a spokesman for CalRecycle, the state solid waste agency.

The county Waste Management Agency has set July 17 as a tentative date for its board vote, though agency officials said meetings with cities could push that schedule back to August.

In addition to Rohnert Park, city councils awaiting their say include Healdsburg, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Cloverdale and Cotati.

If approved, the ordinance could go into effect in January. County waste management officials said the agency would look to alert businesses and shoppers of the change and assist low-income shoppers with free reusable bags distributed through social service agencies.

"This is the way for the county to have a unified approach in moving this forward," said Supervisor Susan Gorin.

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