Sonoma County supervisors remove granny unit restrictions on some farm parcels

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Last year, Jennifer Mann sold her home in Santa Rosa’s Junior College District around the same time her son and daughter-in-law sold their home in downtown Sebastopol.

With the goal of establishing a “family compound,” they bought a home in rural Sebastopol, a unique, three-story, dome-shaped house that looks like a cross between a barn and an observatory.

It’s cramped for a growing family. Mann, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College employee, lives on the first floor, her two grandkids on the second and her son and daughter-in-law on the third.

“We have three acres and we always planned to build a second unit for me, so I could live on the land,” Mann said.

Until recently those plans were hindered by a county zoning restriction known as a “Z District,” which prohibits the construction of granny units in certain agricultural zones.

The restriction was aimed at preserving the county’s agricultural resources and preventing nonfarming residences from encroaching into agricultural lands. However, many smaller parcels restricted by a Z District do not qualify for farm-related housing because they do not meet size and agriculture production requirements.

This month, the county eliminated zoning rules that prohibit the construction of granny units on some agriculture properties, attempting to expand the supply of affordable housing at a time when the county is in dire need of more homes.

On Sept. 17, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve an ordinance that removed the Z District restriction from 1,924 of the nearly 3,985 agriculture parcels where granny units were considered inappropriate. Officials said granny units could provide additional income to farmers, as well as housing for farmworker families.

Emily Manning is among those small farmers who stand to benefit. Two years ago, the Tubbs fire destroyed Manning’s 3-acre farm and home near Mark West Springs Road. On the farm, Manning and her husband, Corey, who both work in the wine business, grew food they donated to the Redwood Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities’ Family Support Center, both in Santa Rosa.

Rather than rebuild on their fire lot, the couple decided to purchase a 20-acre parcel in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley. The larger property will allow the couple to grow more food and make bigger donations to those who need them, Manning said.

The problem is, the property has a 1,000-square-foot farmhouse that is too small for her family. Without the removal of the Z District, Manning would have to demolish the old farmhouse to build a larger structure.

“We’re in a housing crisis but you want me to tear down a perfectly good home that someone would love to live in?” Manning said.

With the new ordinance, the couple wants to submit an application to convert the small farmhouse into a granny unit for their farmhand and his family.

At some point in the future, they hope to build a larger home on their property.

Manning said the loss of thousands of homes has exacerbated a housing crisis that requires local officials to be “flexible” with zoning rules.

Supervisor Chairman David Rabbitt agrees. He said the county needs housing “at all levels,” and that the ordinance could give some farmers an alternative form of income that could help keep small farms viable.

“It’s important that you don’t put undue pressure on farm families to sell their land and move, to have their land become fallow and not become an active farm,” Rabbitt said.

The Z District was created in 1993 to restrict granny units in places with site constraints and to limit nonfarming uses on agricultural parcels. The county currently has a review process for removing the Z District from parcels on a case-by-case basis, and officials have made 40 such exceptions to date.

Since the October 2017 wildfires, local officials have encouraged the construction of granny units to address the county’s lack of affordable housing. The removal of Z District restrictions could spur the construction of more granny units on rural properties where appropriate, officials said.

Eligible parcels include those that are not located on the county’s coastal zone; are not be subject to an open-space contract; are not in a critical habitat for the California tiger salamander; are not in a severe traffic congestion zone; and are not in a high fire-hazard zone.

Those who oppose the change say the move will do little to create affordable housing and could lead to greater urban sprawl.

Teri Shore, North Bay regional director for San Francisco-based nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance, said the supervisors’ action did not include provisions that would have required the granny units be rented at affordable rates.

“If you don’t put any provisions that require rents be affordable to people with lower incomes, or even moderate incomes, there is no guarantee you’ll get any affordable housing,” Shore said. “They’re just hoping.”

In approving the ordinance, county supervisors found the project was “statutorily exempt” from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires state and local agencies to identify environmental impacts of their projects and initiatives.

Shore questioned the county’s position that the zoning change did not require state environmental review.

She said the exemption of nearly 2,000 parcels could potentially result in more people living on rural properties, adding to traffic congestion and other sprawl-related problems.

Sonoma County Planning Manager Jane Riley said the county’s primary focus for building more affordable housing is to do so within urban zones. But Riley said in an email that building accessory dwelling units in some rural areas can provide “valuable affordable housing opportunities in a time of significant need.”

“ADUs in rural areas can help support small farms by providing supplemental income for farm families and may also reduce commute times and associated traffic and pollution by providing housing near rural jobs,” Riley wrote.

Riley said the county’s existing process for a Z District exemption is cumbersome and expensive. She said each individual request took months to process and required public hearings before both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors. The cost was between $10,000 and $20,000, she said.

In identifying the 1,924 parcels impacted by the ordinance, county staff essentially streamlined that process, she said.

“This effort took us over a year and lots of data crunching,” Riley said.

Greenbelt Alliance will encourage supervisors to make administrative revisions that would address key environmental issues. In a letter Thursday to supervisors, Shore asked the county to require granny units be built next to the main house on the property to “prevent de-facto subdivision of small agricultural parcels and to reduce loss of agricultural land to development.”

Wendy Krupnick, vice president of the Sonoma County chapter of Community Alliance with Family Farmers, said local farmers, like everyone else in the county, have been greatly impacted by the rising cost of housing, and many can no longer afford to live here. The alliance is a statewide organization that supports family-scale farming and eco-friendly agriculture practices.

But Krupnick said removing ADU restrictions on agriculture zones will do little to provide more affordable housing or promote agriculture as the primary use on these parcels.

“There’s no restrictions on affordability,” she said. “The primary reason why we are opposed to this change is it’s shifting the primary use of agricultural property to more residential use.”

For her part, Manning, the SRJC retiree, simply wants a small unit where she can live close to her grandchildren.

She currently has sketches of a 600-square-foot apartment over a garage.

To save money, she went with a smaller design than she originally planned. But the important thing, she said, is to keep the family together.

“Ours is a family compound. We’re going to stay here,” she said. “This is my kids’ home forever.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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