Winery events top meeting about county planning priorities

An overflow crowd sat in Tuesday on what normally has been a fairly subdued Board of Supervisors discussion about future planning projects.|

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday asked county planning officials to shift their priorities over the next two years to tackle divisive issues that could result in stronger environmental protections and tighter limits on development.

The direction, which the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department seeks from the Board of Supervisors every two years, was the first step in the county authorizing work on a number of new or revived initiatives. They include a tree ordinance to prevent removal of county woodlands, limits on medical marijuana cultivation, measures to create and retain affordable housing and regulation of events at wineries.

An overflow crowd sat in on what has in years past been a fairly subdued board discussion.

“I’ve never seen this much input,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Two dozen people spoke or submitted letters in support of creating tighter countywide rules for special events at wineries. They lodged complaints about increased traffic and noise in their rural neighborhood and raised concerns about the strain on scarce water resources.

Judith Olney said traffic from winery events has become heavy in her neighborhood off Westside Road.

“Our neighbors are literally being driven off of our roads,” Olney said. “It’s a serious issue.”

Supervisors Susan Gorin and Mike McGuire said they have noticed a flood of complaints about winery events from residents they represent.

“Our rural character is really being challenged,” Gorin said, citing the growth in both winery events and vacation rentals in the county.

The board asked planning officials to work on measures that would prevent what they described as over-concentration of wineries acting as event centers in rural areas.

Supervisors also signaled Tuesday that they plan to reexamine rules limiting medical marijuana gardens. Zane said she has long advocated for stricter rules on medical pot operations in the county.

A 2012 proposal authored by Zane and then-Supervisor Valerie Brown would have repealed county guidelines on medical marijuana cultivation and possession. Supervisors ultimately declined to pass the resolution, bowing to critics who said the county had not gathered sufficient public input, especially from medicinal marijuana businesses and patients. The county’s current regulations date from a 2006 resolution that permits patients to have 30 plants or 100-square-feet of cultivation space and three pounds of dried pot per year.

“Valerie and I were trying to push back on those allowances,” Zane said Tuesday. “It invites crime and it’s a threat to public health and safety.”

Long-term planning projects are funded by county general fund dollars, which make up ?17 percent of the $21 million annual budget for the Permit and Resources Management Department. The majority of the agency’s budget comes from fees and service charges.

Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Barrett said staff would have to halt current priority projects to fund the list of new initiatives recommended by supervisors.

“I would need ?1,600 hours in additional staff time if you want to have these done in a two-year timeframe,” Barrett said.

The department is still down about three full-time employees from 2009, leaving less than six employees today in charge of developing new policies.

Supervisors highlighted results from previously completed long-range projects, including an ordinance easing rules for agricultural operations. New rules approved in July allow farmers to sell fruits, vegetables and other products at farm stands year-round instead of seasonally. They also allow producers to make and sell some products directly to consumers.

The board directed county planners to identify new ways to halt the loss of rental housing and spur the creation of new affordable housing projects. Gorin said the county should aggressively seek new housing sites, while Zane called attention to loss of rental units.

“With a rental vacancy rate of one percent, we need to start treating this like a crisis,” Zane said. “I’m alarmed by how many people can no longer afford housing in this county.”

The board also discussed future work on community separators - the greenbelts that exist outside city limits. Other future projects could include regulations on groundwater pumping and county rules mandating seismic retrofitting for an estimated 170 unreinforced buildings at risk of collapse during an earthquake.

Planning officials are expected to bring back a revised work plan for a board vote. A date has not been set.

You can reach Staff ?Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or ?On Twitter @ahartreports.

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