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Op-Ed: Sonoma County at a crossroads


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.


Posted on Categories Local Organizations, Sustainable LivingTags , ,

Sonoma County planning discussions crowd the horizon


Nearly a year after the Sonoma County Complex Fires destroyed 5,300 homes and ten years after the last housing crash slowed Sonoma County’s economy to a crawl, discussions about the future of housing, transportation and the economy are proliferating.

In the coming months, city, county, regional and business-led planning processes will each form an image of what Sonoma County and the North Bay should look like in the future.

Although many of the problems up for debate preexisted the fires, discussions at public meetings and behind closed doors in the coming months may well determine what course the county and North Bay region take for years to come.


Posted on Categories Land Use, Sonoma CoastTags ,

Ratna Ling Retreat Center at center of rare Supreme Court appeal

East of Salt Point State Park, in the northwest corner of Sonoma County, sits a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center that promotes a tradition of positive change, a spiritual community and deep appreciation of the natural environment.
Despite its aims, not everyone believes the Ratna Ling Retreat Center is as much of a steward to the land and environment as its website claims. The retreat center finds itself in the midst of a lawsuit over the large expansion of its printing press operations.

In 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the expansion of the retreat center’s printing press, enabling Ratna Ling to make four temporary tent-like storage structures permanent. The approval also granted the retreat center permission to construct a new five-bedroom residence for senior members of the Buddhist community on its property.
“The county permitted industrial-scale fabric storage tents in a remote, fire-prone area, even though the local fire protection district warned of unmitigated industrial fire risks,” said Bruce Johnson, a member of Coastal Hills Rural Preservation, the citizens group who filed the initial lawsuit.
After the Board of Supervisors granted approval, Coastal Hills sued the county, arguing the county did not conduct a proper environmental review and that the retreat center was in violation of county land-use standards. Coastal Hills also argues the printing and publishing operations for Dharma Publishing, located at the retreat center, are inconsistent with the county’s general plan and zoning provisions.

Read more at: Ratna Ling Retreat Center at center of rare Supreme Court appeal

Posted on Categories Habitats, WaterTags , , , ,

ACTION: General Plan Amendment proposal for Atascadero Creek wetlands

Atascadero Creek near Graton has marshy wetlands that are home to dozens of species of birds and wildlife. Wetlands store water during winter rains and release it into the underground where it supplies water for our wells.

On May 5, the County Planning Commission will decide if these wetlands should be included in county planning documents. If they vote “yes,” it will mean “hands off” to vintners, developers and builders who want to fill or plant or dredge these critical areas.
MAY 5, 2016 – 1:00 P.M. 
PERMIT AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT DEPT. 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa CA 95403 
FYI: County schedules can change at the last minute. Call the Planning Department at 707-526-1900 the morning of May 5th and ask if the Atascadero Marsh Wetlands study is still on the agenda.
To learn more about the Atascadero Watershed area: The Atascadero / Green Valley Watershed Council
To read about restoration of this watershed area: Preserving the Atascadero Wetlands

Atascadero wetlands
A Google maps view of Atascadero Creek as it flows through the wetlands near its junction with Green Valley Creek.

A proposed General Plan Amendment to expand wetland designations for the Atascadero marsh area is to designate the Atascadero wetlands, and add the Biotic Habitat (BH) combining zone which will help protect this sensitive habitat area from future development and impacts from agricultural, orchard and vineyard uses.  The proposed changes would provide a 100 foot setback from potential wetlands.  The purpose of project is to enhance protection for natural habitat, especially wetlands that adjoin the already protected riparian corridor along Atascadero Creek.
The proposal is to designate the wetland areas on the Opens Space maps with the BH combining zone.  The general plan requires a 100 foot setback for discretionary projects from designated wetlands.  VESCO also requires a 100 foot setback from wetlands designated in the General Plan.  So the protections would apply to discretionary projects (wineries, etc) and orchard and vineyards.  The Ag Commissioner has BMPs for other ag that may consider designated wetlands.
The planning commission hearing is set for May 5th, 1:00.  The staff report should be available the Friday before the PC meeting (April 29).
Read more at: General Plan Amendment proposal for Atascadero Creek Environment

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sonoma CoastTags , , ,

Coast at a crossroads

Richard Charter, Letter to the Editor, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
More than 100 local residents packed standing-room-only into the Timber Cove firehouse on Monday for a lively interaction with Sonoma County planning staff now rewriting our Local Coastal Plan. The plan guides new development, as well as future protection, for our treasured coastal lands.
Opening the Sonoma Coast to large event centers and big wine-tasting venues, or to other industrial-scale activities, lies at the heart of the emerging debate over the plan. County planning staff is proposing to inappropriately transfer lax inland rules from the county’s general plan and, for the first time, put them into a revised Local Coastal Plan. If eventually certified by the California Coastal Commission, this proposed weakening of the coastal plan language would undermine longstanding coastal protections.
Irreversibly ripping out coastal forests ignores our chronic shortage of water, while logging and grading impacts are an obvious threat to erosion-prone soils on unstable hillsides and dump silt into our streams. Our Sonoma Coast needs to have its own protections maintained and shouldn’t be lumped together with inland urban areas.
The deadline to comment on the coastal plan is Sept. 30, and you can send your comments to
For more information, visit
Source: Thursday’s Letters to the Editor | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Land Use, Local OrganizationsTags , , ,

Op-Ed: Community separators – nature’s bulwark against the next San Jose

Take heed, Sonoma. Don’t let our quirky little community character cross-pollinate with our, how shall we say, “less desirable” neighbors of the North Bay. You know the ones: Napa to the east, Santa Rosa to the west.
Heaven forbid, the land Hap Arnold called home is ever diluted by encroachment from our southern friends in, egad, Novato.
But that’s what’s at stake if the 20-year-old “community separator” designations are allowed to expire in 2016.
Community separators are just that: areas that separate communities. They’re lands zoned to act as open space buffers between neighboring communities – to prevent the type of overdevelopment that, when not held in check, can create suburban sprawl which results in, as Teri Shore of the Greenbelt Alliance describes, “city running into city running into city – like you (see) in San Jose.”
Of course, with all-do respect to our friends in the “Capital of Silicon Valley” it would take a lot of horrific city planning decisions for Sonoma to wind up with anything like San Jose’s 25-plus “neighborhoods,” former towns that the city annexed mid-20th century to increase its tax base. (1960s-ers City Manager “Dutch” Hamann vowed to turn San Jose into “another Los Angeles.”)
Now, Sonoma is nowhere near that level of suburban hegemony (though some have had their eye on a tasty little morsel called the Springs over the years). But that doesn’t mean community separators aren’t still important.
Read more at: Editorial: Community separators – nature’s bulwark against the | Sonoma Index-Tribune | Sonoma News, Entertainment, Sports, Real Estate, Events, Photos, Sonoma, CA

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , Leave a comment on County slows deliberation on stream setbacks

County slows deliberation on stream setbacks


The county of Sonoma has slowed down the process for adopting new zoning rules designed to protect 3,200 miles of streams and rivers from development and agriculture along their banks.

Based on comments received about a proposed Riparian Corridor addition to the county Zoning Code ( that would consolidate existing land-use planning policy adopted in 2008 and as well as allow the incoming director of planning and building to help manage the process, county officials have postponed a Planning Commission workshop on the matter, originally set for Wednesday, as well as a hearing set for Nov. 7.

“We received a lot of comments and suggestions,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the county Permit & Resource Management Department, or PRMD. “We want to form a stakeholder group of interested parties and then go back to the commission.”

via County slows deliberation on stream setbacks – North Bay Business Journal – North San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma, Marin, Napa counties – Archive.

Posted on Categories Land Use, WaterTags , Leave a comment on Sonoma County's zoning rules for streamside development delayed

Sonoma County's zoning rules for streamside development delayed

A move to add controversial limits on development and grapevine planting near streams into Sonoma County’s zoning code has been delayed and may not be decided until sometime next year.
Cancellation of a public workshop set for Wednesday on the proposed zoning amendment and indefinite postponement of a Nov. 7 Planning Commission hearing on the matter were announced last week by the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.
“There’s no real hurry,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the department, noting that the stream bank development limits are included in the county’s General Plan.
“We are applying them already,” she said. Putting the limits in zoning law “would streamline the process.”
via Sonoma County’s zoning rules for streamside development delayed | The Press Democrat.