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Water Zoning Rules Backed

Sonoma County planners approve ordinance on agriculture, development on waterways

By ANGELA HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County planning commissioners Thursday night signed off on a new ordinance spelling out a wide set of regulations that limit agriculture and development along 3,200 miles of streams and rivers.

The controversial changes, decades in the making, would create buffer zones around waterways and protect sensitive plant and animal habitat on roughly 82,000 acres of unincorporated parts of the county. Thursday’s 4-1 vote followed eight hours of sometimes heated deliberation, and sends the regulation to the Board of Supervisors, who are expected to vote on the zoning rules sometime this fall.

More than 70 people packed a county meeting room Thursday, while roughly a dozen others spilled out into the hallway to fill out speaking cards and read opposition letters. Speakers, many of whom were farmers and ranchers, said they were concerned about changes affecting grazing operations, habitat protection areas that extend past the riparian corridor to include tree lines and rules guiding underground wells.

“There is always going to be someone who doesn’t get what they want,” said Don Bennett, chairman of the commission. “We’ve had a lot of meetings; it’s now our job to get this into shape to the Board of Supervisors. It’s just the last step in implementing the county’s general plan.”

Jason Liles, the lone commissioner to vote against the rules, said he thought the ordinance was approved too hastily.

“I’m 90 percent happy with the decisions we made, but the issues are so complex that I thought we should have vetted it a little bit more before moving on to the board,” Liles said. “I thought it should come back before staff, before the public, and us one more time.”

Policymakers contend the changes discussed Thursday already are called for in the current general plan, approved in 2008, though some farmers and agricultural interests disagree.

“I’m not happy, I have a lot more concerns,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, a 3,000-member group that has long argued that zoning changes restricting farming, grazing and building activities near streams and rivers go further than what was intended during heated 2008 general plan discussions, when current riparian corridors were created.

“We are talking about significant economic damage that could be done. We’re doing this too fast, and the question is, at what cost?” Sasaki said.

Half of the roughly 30 people who spoke said they were concerned about holding the meeting during the late summer months, when they said many stakeholders are precluded from participating due to harvest time.

Supporters of the regulation, some property owners and some representing environmental groups, said setback areas for riparian corridors didn’t extend far enough.

“This is just a baby step, it’s certainly not enough,” said Joe Dillion, from the Santa Rosa office of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “There are significant issues that are going on, causing sediment and pollution flow into streams.”

Roger Peters, who owns more than 8 acres of property near Kenwood, said he supported the buffer zones because they would allow for groundwater recharge, clean water and critical wildlife protections.

“We have two streams on our property,” Peters said. “We know it provides habitat for fish and water for the public, so we see ourselves as stewards of the land.”

Dennis Murphy, who has owned a farm in Alexander Valley since 1967, said he’d like more time to study the letters sent to officials at the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, which is crafting the zoning ordinance.

“I’d love to have more time to go through all these documents,” Murphy said. “We need to have more time for public testimony, so you can hear concerns of all the property owners who would be affected by this. There are so many who couldn’t be here today because they’re working.”

Other groups, including the North Bay Association of Realtors, asked for an extension until November, giving the public a chance to review changes.

Environmental advocates, agricultural groups and policymakers have long been split on how to implement changes already called for in the county’s general plan, which was adopted in 2008 and runs through 2020. Two public hearings on the issue eight years ago, leading up to the passage of the current general plan, drew hundreds of people and packed a theater at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. And, a Planning Commission meeting scheduled for last November was put off until this week — a delay widely asked for by vineyard owners who said they were busy with the crush.

Since then, a 21-member stakeholder group including environmental advocates, agricultural groups and policymakers has held five meetings to find compromises in the zoning rules, including many that were approved Thursday. The compromises govern fencing and watering facilities on ranch land for grazing animals, extend the riparian buffer zone to include tree trunks rather than the entire canopy and allow property owners to continue to dig wells. Another planning group is currently revamping the county’s ordinance regulating underground wells, slated to come before the Board of Supervisors this year.

Jennifer Barrett, a deputy director with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, said the county has gone through a painstaking public review process over years, and the ordinance simply aligns zoning rules with the county’s general plan.

“We’re not passing anything that hasn’t already been voted for in the county’s (current) general plan,” Barrett said. “This is just streamlining the process and making it more clear.”