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News: 12/01/2014

Stream setback rules approved

This graphic illustrates how the new riparian setbacks would apply to waterways through Kenwood. Download a full map here: Map of Proposed Riparian Corridor Combining District, Planning Area 9, Sonoma Valley.

New county rules on where, when and how areas close to streams can be developed or farmed will go into effect on Dec. 23, following a three-hour public hearing that concluded nearly 14 years of wrangling between agriculture and environmental groups over protection for Sonoma County’s creekside vegetation. The final version of the new zoning ordinance isn’t making anybody very happy and kicks some issues down the road, but, as Board of Supervisors Chair David Rabbitt said, “We got it done.”

The process of getting the new zoning ordinance passed was the longest in Sonoma County history, according to Rabbitt, and involved the participation of stakeholders from all concerned communities.

“It’s been a long process, but it has been a collaborative process,” said Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tim Tesconi. “It will protect our agricultural economy and riparian corridors.” The collaborative nature of the process was lauded by almost every speaker, regardless of their position.

According to years of analysis by state agencies, Sonoma County’s rivers and streams are badly compromised and in need of both protection and restoration. The state water quality agency has already declared the Russian River and Sonoma Creek to be in poor shape, both containing agricultural and human waste byproducts resulting from aggressive encroachment of farms and homes.

“Most streams in Sonoma County do not meet state standards for riparian corridors,” Matt St. John told the supervisors. The executive director of the North Coast Water Quality Control Board said the situation is becoming “critical.” Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Boyes Hot Springs and Sonoma properties are all included in the new rules that seek to protect Sonoma’s more than 3,000 miles of waterways.

The need to protect Sonoma’s streamside vegetation has been embedded in county policy since the 1989 General Plan, and it has been implemented over the years in a variety of rules, regulations, specific area plans, and other General Plan policies that will be unified under the county’s new zoning ordinance. Most protections take the form of setbacks from creeks and rivers where farming and building are prohibited or only allowed after review.

The setback requirements – mostly in place since 2008 – are intended to protect and help restore the waterways, reducing erosion, improving water quality and groundwater recharge rates, as well as better habitat for fish. They are structured on two levels: one for buildings and the other for agriculture.

Under the revised zoning ordinance, building setbacks are 200 feet along the Russian River, 100 feet along level creeks, and 50 feet back from upslope streams and creeks. Agricultural setbacks are exactly half of those numbers at 100, 50 and 25 feet respectively. So while you can’t put a building within 200 feet of the Russian River bank, you can plant grapes up to 100 feet from the river. And farmers can encroach on that 100-foot area to turn their tractors around and build access roads.

The new zoning rules do not apply to existing structures or farms and never will, according to PRMD Director Tennis Wick.

“What you have today, you will get tomorrow,” Wick said, at the same time acknowledging a question from Supervisor Efren Carrillo that most of the county’s buildable properties have been developed. There is, however, increasing interest in developing the county’s coastal range for agriculture that will fall under the rules.

The setbacks are not inflexible, Wick noted, and can be modified with an appropriate “conservation plan” to offset encroachments, such as a path to a creek or minor intrusion into a setback area.

PRMD staff offered the supervisors a menu of options for several areas the long-standing working group of agricultural, real estate and environmental interests ultimately did not resolve: which trees and plants to protect within the agricultural setbacks, equipment turnaround and roads, replanting, drilling wells in the setback areas, and who will enforce the rules.

Twenty-four people spoke about the issues, and divided fairly evenly between options A and B, with B representing tougher standards that would protect more vegetation and allow fewer impacts in the setback zones.

There are several ways to interpret “contiguous” vegetation in setback areas, one of which allows a tree to be vertically planed to match the line, and another which requires the landowner to respect the whole tree, even though most of it may fall outside the hard setback line. The supervisors opted to preserve whole trees whose trunks are inside the setback.

They approved the more stringent option for protecting riparian vegetation outside of agricultural setbacks to a distance of 200 feet.

An attempt by environmentalists to apply a more stringent standard for equipment use in ag setback zones failed. The new rules allow turnarounds and fencing on the filter strips. These mostly apply to vineyards where tractors and other vine servicing equipment need to move from row to row.

When it comes to replanting crops, existing crop boundaries are “grandfathered,” and can be replaced exactly where they were before.

One of the biggest points of contention was allowing wells to be drilled in the ag setback areas.

“Our primary concern is wells,” Valley of the Moon Alliance president Kathy Pons said. “Allowing them in the setback areas allows no protection for the stream. This will have a significant impact on riparian corridors.” The more stringent option B would have prohibited wells in the ag setback zone unless there was no other source of water available.

In the end, however, the supervisors opted to do nothing about well construction in view of a major discussion on wells planned for next year in conjunction with groundwater management rules that are being developed for the county. California will mandate groundwater regulations for counties that do not have their own plans in place very soon.

Finally, setback rules traditionally have been implemented by the Permit Resource and Management Department while the County Agricultural Commissioner promulgates Best Management Practices, or BMPs, that apply to a wide variety of agricultural operations. Almost everybody at the hearing agreed that it would make most sense for the Agricultural Commissioner’s office to be the enforcement arm for setback rules in view of their longstanding and good relations with the county farming community and better understanding of agricultural practices.


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