Riparian ordinance set back
Farm Bureau wants more discussion on new rules
Last minute objections by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau have blocked the course to passage of a comprehensive and unified county ordinance governing riparian setbacks that apply to hundreds if not thousands of county property owners. Two scheduled public hearings have been postponed while the county scrambles to put together a stakeholder committee to discuss the matter further.
“We don’t want the kind of set in concrete rules that might affect lots of landowners without any benefit,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. He acknowledged that the rules are intended to protect streams and wildlife, but has concerns about overly broad or aggressive enforcement of the new ordinance.
The county’s current rules and policies on riparian setbacks – the distance from streams and waterways that can be used or developed – are currently found in a variety of special zoning and policy statements embodied in the county’s General Plan.
According to Jennifer Barrett, Deputy Director for Planning at the Permit Resources and Management Department (PRMD), the new ordinance is required by the General Plan to unify and codify the various policies and zoning rules.
“We are not proposing a working group to re-evaluate the General Plan policies, but rather to review the additional details in the ordinance to implement those General Plan policies,” said Barrett. “There have been a lot of questions about interpretations of the General Plan language which we have clarified in the ordinance.”
In 2006 and 2007, during the public hearings for the General Plan update, there were a “minimum of 14 Planning Commission hearings” concerned with riparian setbacks, along with four Board of Supervisor hearings and a workshop, according to Yolanda Solano, a PRMD staff planner who is shepherding the ordinance through the system.
“Our more recent effort to incorporate the riparian protection policies into zoning has involved one Planning Commission meeting, three public workshops and numerous meetings with individual interest groups.
What exactly has not been covered by these meetings is still unclear, but PRMD is willing to have more discussion on the subject.
“While the General Plan is settled policy that is already implemented through our zoning and grading ordinances and permit procedures, it benefits the community to have a greater understanding of how and where these laws apply. The zoning changes will simply make it easier for staff and the public to determine which setbacks apply, what uses are allowed, and what permits are required in a more streamlined format,” Barrett said.
For his part, Sasaki clearly thinks the public in general, and affected property owners specifically, do not understand the impact of the county’s setback rules and still hopes they can be ameliorated in some way.
“We made lots of comments on the General Plan and most of our comments were taken in, but the plan was adopted in a way we didn’t like,” Sasaki said. He cited several state and federal regulations on riparian corridors and noted that there are studies still going on to identify critical habitat areas that the setbacks are intended to protect.
“I have requested the PRMD to provide every landowner with a map showing which areas will be affected,” Sasaki said. “The fact is that most people don’t know what’s going on. If (notification) is not done, some organization like the Farm Bureau should have some input as to how it should be put into code. All we are fighting against is to put mechanically what it says in the General Plan into code without thinking what the details are.”
The setback rules are not retroactive and can only be applied to projects starting after they were put in place, either by the General Plan or whatever new ordinances codify them. They do apply to all property adjacent to riparian corridors, which in the Sonoma Valley applies to Sonoma Creek and its many tributaries.
The county will begin to assemble the new working group after new PRMD director JT Wick starts working on Nov. 12, Solano said.