By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A move to add controversial limits on development and vineyard planting near streams into Sonoma County’s zoning code has been delayed and may not be decided until sometime next year.
A public workshop set for Wednesday on the proposed zoning amendment was cancelled and a Nov. 7 Planning Commission hearing on the matter was postponed indefinitely last week by the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.
“There’s no real hurry,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of the department, noting that the stream bank development limits are already included in the county’s General Plan.
“We are applying them already,” she said. Putting the limits in zoning law “would streamline the process.”
The zoning proposal, which establishes protective setbacks along more than 3,200 miles of year-round and seasonal streams, will go to a “working group of interested stakeholders” to be named next month, Barrett said.
The delay came at the urging of Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, she said.
Prior to receiving Sasaki’s letter, Barrett said she heard of the Farm Bureau’s concern from several county supervisors, but declined to identify them.
Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower, said the 3,500-member Farm Bureau has “serious concerns” about codifying the General Plan limits “without additional thought going into it.”
The rules give equal protection to all stream bank land, known as riparian habitat, Sasaki said. He suggested that the county await current studies assessing the relative importance of those areas.
Many properties will lose value because of the setback rules, Sasaki said. “How do you compensate for that?” he asked.
The proposed setbacks, extending on each side of a waterway, range from 200 feet on the Russian River to 25 feet on streams in urban areas.
The zoning code regulations “should be meaningful and fair,” Sasaki said.
Some critics feel the establishment of riparian corridors amounts to a seizure of private land by the government. “They feel very strongly about that,” Barrett acknowledged.
Questions also have been raised about the interpretation of the ordinance, which currently is being revised, she said.
Planning Commissioner Pam Davis said she was dismayed by the delay in taking up the stream setback regulations.
“We’ve been through the public process and it’s time to get this into the zoning code,” she said.
The incoming county planning director, Tennis “J.T.” Wick, who starts work Nov. 12, will appoint the members of the stakeholders group that will review the zoning measure prior to any further public meetings, Barrett said.
Wick, a principal at Berg Holdings, a Sausalito land management company, is a board member of Friends of the the Petaluma River and a Sonoma County Farm Bureau member.
Representatives from farm, environmental and real estate groups will be included, along with people involved in fisheries and water supply, Barrett said.
The stakeholder group likely will start work early next year, and the zoning measure will go to the Planning Commission when the group’s work is done.
County regulation of grape planting has been a hot-button issue at least since 1999, when the county’s first vineyard planting ordinance was adopted after 19 months of debate between growers and environmentalists following rapid expansion of vineyards across the county.
Today, there are nearly 60,000 acres of wine grapes in Sonoma County, twice as many as in 1982.
In 2006, two public hearings on proposed county General Plan provisions on stream setbacks packed a theater at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.