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.