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Sonoma County unveils proposed rules for creekside zoning

Sonoma County planning officials are advancing new zoning rules they say will clarify county regulations that shield streams and creeks from development and agriculture.

The updated zoning affects properties along more than 3,200 miles of year-round and seasonal streams in unincorporated areas.

It spells out the size of protective setbacks, essentially buffer zones, required in cases of general development and agricultural cultivation next to streams. Starting at the top of the bank, the zones extend on each side of a waterway and range from 200 feet on the Russian River to 25 feet on streams in urban areas.

The proposed changes also would clarify what is allowed and prohibited within the setback areas.

Currently, those regulations are buried in a number of county land-use plans and codes, county officials say.

"We're just trying to make it more transparent," said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the county's Permit and Resource Management Department.

The regulations have been in place since at least 2008, either as part of the county's General Plan and smaller area plans or as part of grading and building codes.

Their implementation in the zoning for hundreds of streamside properties would not expand the regulations, apart from minor revisions spelling out permitted and prohibited activities, officials said.

In some cases, the revisions make the setback rules more lenient.

"It's just reflecting in the zoning code what the standard practices are, so that people will know," Barrett said.

Still, farming and property rights advocates are wary about the zoning update.

Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said the group may disagree that the General Plan intended for the regulations to be applied uniformly in the zoning code. He also wasn't convinced that only minor revisions were proposed in the update.

"That's definitely their stand," he said of county planners, "but it's not the entire story as far as we can see it."

County planners said the update is not envisioned as part of a broad crackdown on illegal or unpermitted streamside activities. Enforcement generally would be focused on new activities going forward, they said. Existing structures and crops encroaching in setback areas would be allowed as legal "non-conforming" uses.

But property rights activists also are raising questions. Some are trying to rally a large turnout Thursday at a county workshop about the rules to urge that any decision be put off to allow more input.

"I think the public needs to have the ability to digest it a little bit more," said Gloria Ball, a founding member of the Sonoma County Land Rights Coalition.

She took issue with limits on plant removal in setback areas, saying non-native brush such as Himalayan black berry threatens to choke many local streams.

Generally, the county allows work in setback areas focused on streamside maintenance, restoration, pest management and fire prevention.

Other permitted uses include timber harvest, grazing, mining, wells, water storage, public roadways, utilities, docks, trails and parks.

Most activities in streamside areas require a permit from state regulators. In its jurisdiction, the county grants exceptions for some new building and other activities when a landowner has an approved conservation plan for the site.

In addition to the 4 p.m. public workshop Thursday, in the hearing room for the Permit and Resource Management Department, another workshop is planned for 3 p.m., Oct. 23.

The county Planning Commission has postponed its discussion of the issue to a Nov. 7 hearing.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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