Sonoma County unveils blueprint for development on coast
The guiding blueprint for development and land-use decisions along the Sonoma Coast is again up for revisions, marking the revival of a sometimes contentious policy debate over one of Sonoma County’s most prized landscapes.
The process was put on hold after the first round of revisions in 2015, when some land-use activists feared changed rules would open the way for an explosion of winery events and tasting rooms on coastal agricultural lands.
County Planner Cecily Condon said that was never the case, but the current draft of the ?20-year local coastal plan explicitly excludes those activities except in commercial zones in response to widespread concern.
Overall, Condon said she wants to assure residents that the primary goal of the land-use plan, required by the California Coastal Commission, remains conservation of coastal resources and values.
“We haven’t lessened the environmental protections,” she said. “We haven’t increased developmental potential.”
The planning document is required in coastal counties up and down the state to ensure local regulations comply with the California Coastal Act and balance ecological preservation with economic development. Coast-dependent industries such as fishing are supposed to get priority alongside environmental preservation, public access and recreation. Agriculture and forestry also are top priorities.
But suspicion remains high amid some constituencies, with several watchdog groups that view the draft plan with skepticism, seeing what they believe to be loopholes for exploitation of the coast.
County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the Sonoma Coast, said those concerns may reflect real flaws or misunderstandings, at least in part, but they need to be addressed as the plan moves forward.
“I don’t see the (plan) as promoting development at all, but the fear is always there when it comes to the coast,” said Hopkins. “So if there’s room for interpretation, then I think it’s important that we make explicit the vision of the coast that we want to see.”
The plan runs along all 55 miles of coastline and covers roughly 86 square miles, extending inland along the Russian River, the Estero Americano near Valley Ford and the Gualala River.
The preliminary draft was first unveiled four years ago and circulated through a series of public workshops like those underway now, but then the process was put on hold while the county wrestled with staffing challenges and then reassignment due to the 2017 wildfires. The revised version is now being recirculated before it heads to the county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors next year, Condon said.
It addresses a variety of issues including land-use designations, public access, safety and facilities, water resources, transportation, open space and farming. New attention is given to subjects such as coastal erosion - occurring at a rate of more than ?1 foot a year in some locations - and sea level rise - forecast to reach as high as ?6 feet by the end of the century.
The document already is hundreds of pages long and is not an easy read for the layperson. Some are asking for more time to digest what’s in it.
“Everything that’s happened between the last round of public engagement and this round of public engagement has been behind closed doors,” Hopkins said, “so we absolutely have to open up the process. … If we have to slow it down, we’ll slow it down.”