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Size limits on buildings in rural Sonoma County sparks controversy

A controversial new policy that sets limits on how much homeowners are allowed to build on residential land in unincorporated Sonoma County is causing a stir among property rights advocates, agriculture groups and some construction companies.

Under the policy, which went into effect this month, property owners who want to add buildings such as detached garages, workshops or barns to their land cannot construct more than 3,000 square feet total in addition to the main residence, for the lifetime of the property. Any future building would take into account the square footage of structures already on the land.

County officials say the new policy, outlined under the term “detached residential accessory structures,” simply streamlines rules already in place.

“The thing that has caused a sense of urgency - besides wanting to provide clarity and consistency in the way we regulate properties through the different codes - is the increase in permits we’re seeing,” said Tennis Wick, director of the Permit and Resource Management Department, which developed the new policy. “We’re seeing a lot of remodeling and construction of accessory buildings.”

Building permits in 2013 and 2014 were up 20 percent from prior years, according to county planning officials, and this year is on track to beat both, with 6,800 permits expected by the end of 2015.

But some consider the new policy a land grab by government, and contend the limits on construction - developed without feedback from concerned residents or property owners - are overreaching.

“The way this was done, behind closed doors and with no public input, is ridiculous,” said Ryan Giannecchini, who owns SC Barns Building and Fence, a business that specializes in building the type of structures affected by the policy and therefore stands to benefit from looser rules. “Yes, it affects me, but it also affects every single one of my customers today and for the lifetime of their property.”

Giannecchini learned of the new policy after a customer contacted him, confused about the rules. Since then, he has expressed his concerns to county planning officials and some supervisors. Now, they are scrambling to respond to growing public backlash over the new policy and the way in which it was written.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he does not believe the policy is a radical change from current rules.

“As I understand it, this doesn’t change anything that you can legally do today; it’s just putting it all in one place as a convenience for PRMD customers,” said Rabbitt, who is expected to meet with Giannecchini today on the matter. “If it comes to us and it turns out we slipped in adding regulations, I’ll go back and say we need to have that public discussion.”

The 3,000-square-foot limit does not apply to some types of structures, such as guest houses and pool buildings, which are subject to other size restrictions.

There is widespread confusion over how the policy treats farm buildings.

Donna Crowley, who recently moved to Bennett Valley and purchased a nearly 4-acre property with her husband, Don Hendrix - in part so they could relocate their horses to their home - is one of the first people who encountered the policy.

“We went down to the planning desk and were told this new policy was going into effect on July 1, and any detached residential structures, including a three-sided horse shelter, would count against the 3,000-square-foot limit,” Crowley said. “Then we were told they were ag structures so this wouldn’t apply.”

Crowley and Hendrix want to build a new barn for their three horses and a storage building to store hay and a tractor. They were given conflicting answers when seeking permits for those structures, she said.

The confusion stemmed from a paragraph in the new regulation that outlines how agricultural buildings are dealt with. It states that farm structures on land zoned for agriculture are not subject to the 3,000-square-foot limit “when they are accessory to a commercial agricultural operation.” However, the size limit does apply to such buildings that are accessory to a home.

“Barns or other similarly labeled structures that are accessory to a residence are subject to the 3,000-square-foot limitation,” the regulation says.

Crowley and Hendrix do not have a commercial agricultural operation.

County planning officials have acknowledged that the language is problematic, and on Wednesday, planning officials were preparing to eliminate the word “commercial” from the policy in an attempt to quell frustration and clarify county rules.

“That doesn’t express our intent here; we’re not looking to regulate barns,” said Patrick Mullin, the county’s ombudsman on planning- and zoning-related matters. “We’re listening to some of the issues people are raising. … They’re concerned this is a taking of their land. So much of what planners are doing is interpreting our codes, but we need to clarify some of the policy inconsistencies.”

Restrictions are also igniting worries by some who say this could infringe on their private property rights.

“We’re very concerned that homeowners might now have more limits on their properties without them knowing anything about the policy, when it was passed or how to get involved,” said Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors in Sonoma County. “This regulation could significantly impact a family’s plans for their homes.”

Sanchez and others said they were also troubled by the way the policy was written.

“When Tennis Wick began as the new director of PRMD, we thought there would be greater public engagement than there had been in the past,” Sanchez added. “Unfortunately, after this, we may have been wrong.”

“Compared with some other ordinances, this particular policy did not seem to have gone through a public hearing or gather any public input at all, which is surprising,” said Tito Sasaki, a member of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau who is part of a working group that advises Wick and other county planning staff on agricultural issues. “More public outreach would have been preferred.”

Sasaki underscored some of the confusion, adding, “If they had public outreach, we could have caught up with the faults that got into it.”

Mullin said the policy simply clarifies existing rules that have long been in place. He acknowledged the policy needs fine-tuning but defended the process, saying it resulted in a speedier resolution of the issue.

“We wrote this policy so we are more consistent in how we regulate property. It gives us teeth in how we regulate structures,” Mullin said.

Sasaki and others mentioned other controversial land-use polices that have ignited concern recently. One, in particular, was eventually agreed upon after a rigorous public debate.

The riparian corridor ordinance was implemented in late 2014 after years of public meetings. It represents a hard-won compromise between farmers and environmental groups, advancing protective buffer zones along 3,200 miles of streams and rivers in the county.

Critics of the new policy said the county should have followed the same approach when writing the size limits.

“Public input on things like this can bring to light remaining issues that are out there, and they can be discussed and hashed out, and we can find some common ground,” Giannecchini said. “Unfortunately, that was not done. … It’s absolutely absurd.”

Mullin and Wick said the policy will not affect agriculture.

They said the county has been drafting the policy for the past three years. They ramped up their work this year when seeing an increase in building and zoning permits. With the rebounding economy, that activity is expected to increase.

“This year is looking to be a 20 percent increase from last year,” Wick said. “We’re seeing a lot of improvements, and that’s a good thing, so what we’re trying to do is provide consistent ground rules.”

In addition to the increase in people remodeling their houses and adding structures like guest houses and workshops, county planning officials said they’re also seeing residents violate county rules by allowing people to live in buildings on their property not intended for housing.

“Yes, this is happening,” Mullin said. “We see structures like a 4,000-square-foot dance studio with three stories, a bathroom upstairs and downstairs and multiple rooms, and you say that’s a detached accessory structure?”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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