County slows deliberation on stream setbacks

SANTA ROSA -- 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."

Workshops on the proposed new zoning rules were held May 22, June 5 and mid-September. The last workshop had been postponed at the request of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau because of the winegrape harvest, and the group requested another one in late October for the same reason.

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday appointed J.T. Wick as the new department director. He is set to start in the role Nov. 12.

The proposed zoning would incorporate the "streamside protection areas" of 50 to 200 feet along both sides of protected waterways, a protection adopted in the General Plan 2020 document. These areas would have "setbacks" of varying widths as a buffer to construction or agricultural activity that could let dirt or agricultural "nutrients" wash into waterways deemed habitat for protected fish species.

General Plan policy is supposed to be folded into county law, and these setbacks have been in various forms. Examples are the county vineyard erosion-control ordinance, first adopted in 2001, and in the county's grading ordinance. Local area plans also included these setbacks.

"Property owners and staff have a difficult time determining what the setback should be for a particular creek, versus what is in the Zoning Code," Ms. Barrett said.

Already required is consultation with, or permits from, state and general resource-protection agencies for activities near and in riparian areas such as digging for septic systems, shoring up banks and clearing brush.

The existing vineyard erosion-control ordinance already settles the matter, according to Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

"We are not directly impacted by the proposed zoning," she said.

For Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the speed at which the translation of General Plan policy into enforceable code is a problem, according to President Tito Sasaki of Sasaki Vineyards.

"Our position is that we are OK with the philosophy behind General Plan 2020, but we see many problems with literally interpreting principles into code, because once it's in there, it's harder to get out."

An example he points to is the uniform approach to determining setbacks for a given waterway in large sections of its length, versus a contextual approach.

The county is modeling its plan for a stakeholder group after the process for the grading ordinance, which had seven members and 10 interested parties. The core seven were from government agencies, agriculture, environmental groups and business organizations.

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