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Close to Home: Sonoma County at a crossroads

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Sonoma County is at a crossroads right now with new and ongoing challenges such as climate change and extreme weather, housing needs and poor public transit that have the potential to change our communities and lands for decades to come. The general plan and zoning code are the tools intended to provide a vision and path forward on land use and to provide certainty for residents and voters.

The county’s general plan update has been postponed for the past three years because of the fires and floods that have devastated our communities. In fact, these extreme events have created a new urgency for updating the general plan. The county must respond to changed conditions since the last general plan update, more than a decade ago, and forge a way forward into an uncertain future and a “new normal.”

That is why Greenbelt Alliance, the Sierra Club, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Wine and Water Watch and Mobilize Sonoma recently joined forces to urge the Board of Supervisors to prioritize the update of the general plan without further delay.

But after a lengthy public hearing on April 16, the supervisors voted in favor of Permit Sonoma’s recommendation to delay work on the general plan for another year or more. They decided to prioritize multiple important existing and new initiatives over the next two years. The Permit Sonoma work plan priorities is to be finalized at the June 4 supervisors meeting.

Most of the priorities are supported by environmental community, but several raise red flags because of conflicts with city-centered growth and the potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions. This is even more alarming given that no climate measures were made priorities.

In response to large community turnout at the April 16 public hearing, revising the county cannabis ordinance was put at the top of the priority planning list.

Next in line, with strongest community support, was updating the county tree ordinance, promised for a decade or more. The county’s tree protection ordinance allows trees, including oak woodlands, to be cleared for wine grapes, hay and other agriculture without public review. It is now back on the priority list.

Finalizing the Local Coastal Plan, the general plan for the coast, is also to move forward. A previous draft sparked controversy because of proposals to open up more coastal areas to commercial and vineyard development.

Long overdue winery event regulations were also made a priority, though it is not clear how soon the county will move forward, or whether draft staff guidelines will ever be released, or if county will rely entirely on standards developed by wineries and/or neighbors in each area of overconcentration.

Other priorities include planning for the Sonoma Developmental Center, adding more vacation rental exclusion zones and the Springs specific plan.

Several priorities seem a bit out of whack. Should we really be fast-tracking housing at the Santa Rosa Airport Business Park and in southeast Santa Rosa on county lands outside of voter-approved urban growth boundaries in Santa Rosa and Windsor? Both undermine long-standing city-centered growth policies.

Rezoning and opening up more rural parcels for large accessory dwelling units — as big as double-wide mobile homes — and without affordability requirements won’t solve the housing problem. Doing so will definitely increase greenhouse gas emissions, by adding more people who need to drive everywhere.

If we want to change course, we need to update the general plan first. The Board of Supervisors should provide a date certain timeline for the general plan update to be underway, not later than 2020-2021 and with no further delays.

Teri Shore is North Bay regional director for Greenbelt Alliance in Santa Rosa.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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