County vote OKs stream setbacks
Sonoma County supervisors Monday adopted a hard-won compromise between farmers and environmental groups, advancing protective buffer zones along 3,200 miles of streams and rivers in the county.
“This is a historic day,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt said. “It wasn’t easy to get here.”
Supervisors unanimously approved the measure shielding 82,000 acres of land outside city limits, most of it on private property, from future farming and development.
The decision followed a four-hour public hearing, where 25 speakers from a standing-room-only crowd called the once-controversial policy now workable.
“This has been a long process,” said Bob Anderson, executive director for United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, who has been heavily involved in negotiating new rules. “It is pretty amazing in this county to have all interests singing from the same sheet of music.”
Officials said the buffer zones along waterways throughout the county will provide critical ecosystem functions, including groundwater recharge, water quality, river bank stability and habitat for imperiled fish species.
Most of the speakers were in favor of the proposal and applauded the compromise. The new rules were first approved under the county’s general plan, adopted six years ago, and will now be aligned with county zoning codes, officials said.
“For people who violate the law, I can go after them now,” said Tennis Wick, director for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “Yesterday I couldn’t.”
The new countywide ordinance prevents property owners from cultivating land or building on land that is 50 to 200 feet from rivers and streams. At issue Monday were details in the proposal, including where to draw the edge of the setback zone, vehicle turnarounds for farming operations and whether to allow wells within buffer zones.
Supervisors ultimately approved a plan drawing protective boundaries around tree trunks if they fall on the setback boundary line and to allow exemptions for wells and agricultural turnaround roads.
Environmental groups and advocates criticized the decision to allow some exemptions, but called the new riparian corridor ordinance a success.
“I would call this a good first step towards sustainability,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director for Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county’s largest environmental organization. “But it was based on politics, not science.”
Supervisors described the new rules as one of the county’s most complex policy initiatives, which has generated some of the most passionate feedback of any environmental policy.
“I know perhaps everyone isn’t happy, but this is a way to protect our resources,” Rabbitt said. “This shouldn’t be looked at lightly.”
Planning officials and supervisors called the setbacks overdue. They blamed environmental degradation partly on confusion over zoning policy, citing alleged clear-cutting of streamside vegetation recently and harm to imperiled fish species and water quality.
“Restoration is needed for these riparian functions,” Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Barrett said. “This is going to also provide more clarity, consistency and certainty in our planning process.”
Farming groups, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, applauded the board’s decision.
“This has truly been a collaborative effort,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Farm Bureau. “It protects our agricultural economy and riparian corridors.”
Farmers and ranchers, who heavily advocated for the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to implement and enforce new rules, succeeded at Monday’s hearing, steering oversight away from the Permit and Resource Management Department.