Sonoma County’s effort to implement one of its most controversial land use policies — protective buffer zones along 3,200 miles of rivers and streams — has reignited a pitched debate between environmental organizations, farmers and private property rights activists about how to best protect and manage waterways throughout the county.
The dispute is fundamentally about the reach of government regulation onto private land to safeguard public resources, including water quality and wildlife. The debate has been closely monitored by environmental and agriculture groups, and county officials have acknowledged that the outcome will have far-reaching implications.
“This is hugely important, and it involves a tremendous amount of properties,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt. “What we’re trying to do is protect the environment while balancing the needs of people who live and work here.”
As proposed, the restrictions, which are up for a decision today at the Board of Supervisors, would curb development, farming and other activities on more than 82,000 acres of land outside city limits, most of it on private property.
Supporters, including environmental groups, say the measures are needed to protect common resources such as drinking water, as well as wildlife that depend on streams for habitat.
“This is a very important step in loosening the straps of the straightjacket we’ve put on the Russian River, to help with flood protection, species preservation and groundwater recharge,” said Don McEnhill, executive director of the Russian Riverkeeper, an advocacy and stewardship nonprofit group.
But opponents, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, say the measures trample on the rights of private landowners.
“This is a regulation for the sake of regulation,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the Farm Bureau. “It has no consideration for its negative economic impact on affected property owners or for truly enhancing our environment.”
The issue spurred intense public hearings in the lead-up to adoption of the county general plan in 2008. Supervisors backed the policy outlining so-called riparian setbacks at the time, but the county has struggled with how to implement them through the zoning code.
The county delayed action a year ago and kicked the discussion back to environmental advocates and farming interests for more input.
In the interim, it appears some landowners who would fall under the proposed zoning changes have taken matters into their own hands. The county has received at least four reports of property owners clear-cutting streamside trees and shrubs on their land.
McEnhill, the Riverkeeper director, has collected photographs and other evidence submitted to the county that he says shows razed vegetation on stream banks along the Russian River and its tributaries.
McEnhill contends the clear-cutting is a preemptive move by some property owners to get ahead of the county’s rules before they are passed.
“We’re seeing lots of clear-cutting along creeks, especially in the last eight weeks,” McEnhill said. “And this summer, we found dozens of people who were cutting everything down along the Russian River.”
Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, said he has spoken with McEnhill and received his photographs showing the alleged clear-cutting. Code enforcement officers with the Permit and Resource Management Department have not yet verified the complaints.
The proposed ordinance would allow county officials to penalize such activity under authority they say they currently do not have.