By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
New rules and zoning changes for agricultural land in Sonoma County drew a packed audience Tuesday at the county Board of Supervisors, which put off a vote on most of the changes after hearing nearly two hours of public comment.
One group of rules would more strictly define the types of properties and activities qualifying for enrollment in the Williamson Act, which offers landowners tax breaks in exchange for maintaining agriculture and open space land.
Other zoning changes would limit some commercial uses and restrict building sizes on lands zoned for agriculture in the county while allowing other activities through an extensive permitting process.
Almost two-dozen speakers provided input on both sets of proposals. The comments included sharp criticism at times, echoing previous feedback given to the county Planning Commission, which approved the proposals in September on a 5-0 vote.
“You’re legislating failure,” said Joe Alioto Veronese, a Sonoma Valley winemaker and one of several small-farm operators to voice concerns with new limits on commercial farm activities on smaller parcels zoned Agricultural and Residential.
Real estate interests took aim at a proposed phase-out of vacation rentals on properties zoned Land Intensive Agriculture, or LIA. Less than 30 existing rentals operating outside the current rules would be allowed, but new operations would not be permitted under most of the suggested changes, a move that could affect 2,149 LIA-zoned properties countywide.
Real estate representatives said new rentals should be allowed on those properties. Supervisor Mike McGuire backed that request on smaller parcels, provided the operations were subject to tighter permit requirements and the county’s existing vacation rentals ordinance.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said that move would contradict the county’s general plan and open a “Pandora’s box,” saying tourism and agriculture were not compatible in many cases.
Supervisors agreed the issue needed further study.
A group of property rights activists in attendance continued their campaign to paint all of the rule changes as part of a worldwide, United Nations-driven conspiracy threatening landowners.
Other speakers praised changes that would allow a greater range of farm properties to conform to county rules.
For example, properties with at least half of their acreage dedicated to an expanded list of qualifying uses — officials added timberland and horse breeding in recent months — would be eligible for the state ag preserve program going forward.
For ag preserves, minimum farm-income standards and the presence of schools, churches and non-farm airstrips would still exclude other properties.
The changes are driven by state policy updates and a need to eliminate inconsistencies in county zoning, planning officials said.
At the end of an 11-hour day, supervisors agreed to return to the proposals on Dec. 13, when they are expected to cast a formal vote on the ag preserve rules and endorse further study of the zoning changes, which would come back to the board at a later date. Written comments will be accepted through Dec. 2.