Planning effort for Sonoma County coast draws scrutiny

Land-use activists are especially concerned about broad language that they say paves the way for controversial winery event centers.|

Newly drafted guidelines for future development along the Sonoma Coast are inspiring interest and, in some cases, anxiety about potential policy shifts that some fear could alter their cherished coastline for the worse.

Land-use activists are especially concerned about broad language on the topic of agricultural tourism, marketing and promotion that they say paves the way for winery event centers of the sort that have sparked opposition inland, and they’re gearing up for a fight.

“We feel that the coast is a really inappropriate place for that to be happening - that the coast needs the protection that is already in the general plan, and that that language just opens up the coast to development by wineries,” said Sebastopol resident Reuben Weinzveg, a spokesman for Residents to Preserve Rural Sonoma County.

At issue is an update of the county’s Local Coastal Plan, required by the California Coastal Commission and meant to guide planning for the next 20 years in a roughly 86-square-mile area that includes the 55-mile coastline and inland areas along the Russian River estuary, the Estero Americano near Valley Ford and portions of the Gualala River basin. Agricultural uses account for 32 percent of the land-use designations in the area.

The plan addresses a host of issues including public services and transportation, open space and resource conservation, housing and environmental protections, among other topics.

It is not intended to encourage development, but rather to preserve coastal resources and continue existing protections, said Sandi Potter, environmental review and comprehensive planning manager for the county Permit and Resource Management Department.

Some of the content changes, including much of what has prompted public concerns, comes either from the existing coastal plan or from the county general plan revised in 2008, Potter said.

The plan acknowledges that there will be some growth, especially around Bodega Bay, bringing the population within the coastal zone to an estimated 11,700 by the year 2020, an increase of 3,283 residents from the year 2000. Water supply will be the primary limit.

It also references a need for more multifamily housing and affordable housing. Out of 562 homes built in the covered area between 2000 and 2014, all but 30 were single-family dwellings, and none of those 30 were more than four units.

But there are no major land-use or zoning changes, Potter said, and new policies are limited primarily to five major topics that form the focus of the update: sea level rise; public coastal access; coastal erosion; special-status plant and animal species; and water-quality issues.

With the potential for the sea level to rise as much as 6 feet by 2100, the county is assessing the state of roads and structures and will have to decide how to restrict future development that otherwise could become inundated from storm surges. Real estate disclosures could be required for properties in the future inundation zone, and infrastructure might have to be relocated, according to the draft guidelines.

But the preliminary update in circulation since June is a draft and merely a starting point for discussion, Potter said. It will be revised based on public input and numerous reviews before county planning commissioners, the Board of Supervisors and, ultimately, the Coastal Commission, “so we’re at the very beginning of a process,” she said.

Activists say they’re skeptical, however, given the influence of the county’s multibillion-dollar wine industry and the continuing proliferation of large vineyards and wineries.

They want to make their objections known right away, and on Monday they plan to pack the last of five workshops on the topic, in Timber Cove.

Concerned citizens point to language in the draft that touts the economic benefits of special events and visitor services in agricultural areas, and the power of direct marketing and contact with customers to help sustain growers and others in agriculture. Agricultural success also reduces pressure on landowners to subdivide or try to convert their property to some other use, the proposal says.

“While agricultural tourism is not in high demand on the Sonoma County Coast, it may become so in the future,” the draft plan states. “… Agricultural tourism would contribute to supporting the economic success of the agricultural industry on the Coast.”

But it also states that any allowed uses must be balanced against adverse impacts, such as traffic.

Weinzveg nonetheless describes the coast as “the next development target of Big Wine” and said permitting such uses “changes the character tremendously.”

He and others said the new language in the agricultural-use section has not been highlighted during four previous public meetings on the plan, perhaps from a hope it can slide through the process under the radar.

“I see this as a foot in the door,” said veteran conservationist Jim Sullivan of Occidental.

“The wine industry is economically dominant in this county,” he said. “From 30 years of working on issues like this, I just see their footprints all over it.”

Richard Charter, a longtime conservationist and fellow with the Ocean Foundation, said there are a variety of issues to consider about coastal development and how it relates to the plan, but said the issue of industrial-scale wineries and event centers - though not specifically mentioned in the plan - “is raising some pretty severe alarm bells.”

“If you start to relax the current status quo, which permits what we have now, and you do it in a somewhat ambiguous way, which the new language seems to do - it’s not clear what it allows and what it wouldn’t allow - it’s definitely causing the concern that it’s looser than what we’ve had,” Charter said.

In the wake of recent coastal property transfers and a series of efforts to convert coastal woodlands to vineyards, people have legitimate concerns, he said.

“You can have a responsible measure of commercial activity, but there’s a tipping point,” Charter said. “If you’re not careful, you can tip into Muir Woods, where you have to bus people from Mill Valley parking lots on buses to even look at the redwood trees in Muir Woods. That’s not where we want to go here.”

The deadline for public comment on the draft plan is Sept. 30.

Today’s public meeting runs from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Timber Cove Fire Station, 30800 Seaview Road.

More information and a copy of the draft plan are available online at

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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