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County vote OKs stream setbacks

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Sonoma County supervisors Monday adopted a hard-won compromise between farmers and environmental groups, advancing protective buffer zones along 3,200 miles of streams and rivers in the county.

“This is a historic day,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt said. “It wasn’t easy to get here.”

Supervisors unanimously approved the measure shielding 82,000 acres of land outside city limits, most of it on private property, from future farming and development.

The decision followed a four-hour public hearing, where 25 speakers from a standing-room-only crowd called the once-controversial policy now workable.

“This has been a long process,” said Bob Anderson, executive director for United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, who has been heavily involved in negotiating new rules. “It is pretty amazing in this county to have all interests singing from the same sheet of music.”

Officials said the buffer zones along waterways throughout the county will provide critical ecosystem functions, including groundwater recharge, water quality, river bank stability and habitat for imperiled fish species.

Most of the speakers were in favor of the proposal and applauded the compromise. The new rules were first approved under the county’s general plan, adopted six years ago, and will now be aligned with county zoning codes, officials said.

“For people who violate the law, I can go after them now,” said Tennis Wick, director for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “Yesterday I couldn’t.”

The new countywide ordinance prevents property owners from cultivating land or building on land that is 50 to 200 feet from rivers and streams. At issue Monday were details in the proposal, including where to draw the edge of the setback zone, vehicle turnarounds for farming operations and whether to allow wells within buffer zones.

Supervisors ultimately approved a plan drawing protective boundaries around tree trunks if they fall on the setback boundary line and to allow exemptions for wells and agricultural turnaround roads.

Environmental groups and advocates criticized the decision to allow some exemptions, but called the new riparian corridor ordinance a success.

“I would call this a good first step towards sustainability,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director for Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county’s largest environmental organization. “But it was based on politics, not science.”

Supervisors described the new rules as one of the county’s most complex policy initiatives, which has generated some of the most passionate feedback of any environmental policy.

“I know perhaps everyone isn’t happy, but this is a way to protect our resources,” Rabbitt said. “This shouldn’t be looked at lightly.”

Planning officials and supervisors called the setbacks overdue. They blamed environmental degradation partly on confusion over zoning policy, citing alleged clear-cutting of streamside vegetation recently and harm to imperiled fish species and water quality.

“Restoration is needed for these riparian functions,” Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Barrett said. “This is going to also provide more clarity, consistency and certainty in our planning process.”

Farming groups, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, applauded the board’s decision.

“This has truly been a collaborative effort,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Farm Bureau. “It protects our agricultural economy and riparian corridors.”

Farmers and ranchers, who heavily advocated for the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to implement and enforce new rules, succeeded at Monday’s hearing, steering oversight away from the Permit and Resource Management Department.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between what the environmental community is asking for and what’s good for agriculture,” said John Azevedo, a Healdsburg grape grower. “We feel this is a fair request.”

Environmental advocates, while cheering the long-fought process and Monday’s new protections, attempted unsuccessfully to steer the county away from allowing wells in setback areas.

“We know surface water is going down because of the drought, and people are continuing to drill wells,” said Rue Furch, a former 17-year county planning commissioner who was heavily involved in general plan discussions starting in 2002.

Furch said the drought has reduced recharge of underground aquifers.

“What we learned since 2008 is that we are in a great deal more trouble than we had recognized then,” Furch said. “Riparian functions, including water quality, flood protection and habitat, are all at risk because of climate change.”

Others involved in general plan discussions also protested allowing the digging of water wells within riparian areas. Though the county is currently drafting a new well ordinance, new rules under revision would apply to well construction standards. No limits would be placed on where wells are permitted.

“Water wells were never a part of the general plan discussion,” said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist with the Sonoma Ecology Center. “We don’t believe they should be a part of something called the streamside conservation area.”

The final vote by supervisors comes a year after the county delayed action on the issue, kicking the discussion back to environmental advocates and farming interests for more input.

Although controversy was muted during Monday’s packed hearing, two property owners spoke to supervisors about the county impinging on their property rights.

“You’re taking half of my land,” said Richard Middleton, who owns about six acres in Sebastopol.

Gloria Ball, vice president of membership for Sonoma County Land Rights Coalition, who estimated the number of properties affected at 22,000, said more should be done to compensate property owners for their land if it falls into newly protected areas.

Neither the Board of Supervisors nor the planning department have “done anything to address the issue of value being removed from properties.”

“We’re all for clean water,” she said, “but we feel there are better ways this could have been handled.”

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