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General Plan offers Sonoma County chance to chart path forward

Apr 24, 2019
by Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance

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Sonoma County is at a crossroads right now with new and ongoing challenges such as climate change and extreme weather, housing needs, and transportation that have the potential to change the face of our communities and lands for decades to come.

The General Plan and zoning code are the tools intended to provide a vision and path forward and to provide certainty for residents and voters in the long-term.

The General Plan update has been postponed for the past three years due to the fires and floods that have devastated our communities. The County of Sonoma urgently needs to respond to changed conditions since the last General Plan and to plan for an uncertain future and a “new normal.”

In order to respond to these changes and forge a path forward, Greenbelt Alliance, Sierra Club, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, Wine and Water Watch, and Mobilize Sonoma recently joined forces to urge the Board of Supervisors prioritize the update of the General Plan in the Permit Sonoma Comprehensive Work Plan for 2019 through 2021 without further delay.

After a lengthy public hearing and difficult conversations held April 16, the supervisors voted in favor of Permit Sonoma’s recommendation to delay work on the General Plan or at least another year or more. They decided to prioritize multiple important existing and new initiatives over the next two years. The Permit Sonoma Work Plan priorities will be finalized at the June 4 supervisors meeting.

See April 16 documents here: www.sonoma-county.legistar.com.

Most of the priorities are supported by environmental community, but several raise red flags due to conflicts with city-centered growth and the potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions. No climate measures were put on the priority list. So we will need to continue to make the case for action on climate change, protecting our environment and public health, and ensuring homes for all as we face of an uncertain future.

The following list reflects the environmental priorities as in the five-page letter we sent to the supervisors about the Permit Sonoma Comprehensive Work Plan (available on request fromtshore@greenbelt.org).

Priorities - support

Cannabis Ordinance, Phase 2 –Large community turn-out at public hearing in favor of revising cannabis ordinance.

Tree Ordinance –Second strongest community support at public hearing for updating tree ordinance. The County’s Tree Protection Ordinance allows trees including oak woodlands to be cleared for hay, wine grapes, without public review. A revision has been promised for more than a decade.

Local Coastal Plan –Finalize the “General Plan for the coast” and get approval from the California Coastal Commission as required. Previous draft sparked controversy due to plans to open up more coastal areas to commercial development.

Winery Event Regulations –Long overdue, not clear how soon county will move forward or whether draft staff guidelines will ever be released or if county will rely entirely on standards developed by wineries and/or neighbors in each area of overconcentration.

Sonoma Developmental Center –Approved by board with funding from state for three years to develop a specific plan that will include housing on-site and protection of open space lands.

X Combining Zone Revisions (Vacation rental exclusion zones) –Opportunity to protect more residential areas from vacation rentals and make it easier for neighborhoods to apply.

Springs Specific Plan – Complete planning process in the Springs area of Sonoma Valley to allow more home and businesses. The EIR is due out soon for public review.

Do Not Prioritize

Airport Specific Plan –not urgent, violates two Urban Growth Boundaries (Santa Rosa and Windsor), conflicts with existing General Plan which does not allow housing, requires General Plan amendment, controversial, and needs full Environmental Impact Report. Should be deprioritized at least until UGBs and downtowns are built out.

Southeast Santa Rosa/Santa Rosa Avenue Planning – not urgent, conflicts with City of Santa Rosa UGB, General Plan, Downtown focus and Renewal Enterprise District, needs full EIR due to critical habitat for endangered tiger salamanders, wetlands, sensitive habitat. Has not been on any housing or other priority list by county or city until just now.

New Housing Initiatives –Rezoning of non-residential land use, Removal of Z zoning for ADUs on rural parcels– not urgent, needs full EIR, not city-centered, increases Vehicle Miles Traveled. Focus should remain on city-centered growth and in unincorporated communities, not rural lands.

More than 16,000 units of housing are currently in the pipeline across Sonoma County, according to estimates by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. The city of Santa Rosa is advocating for new development downtown. The cities of Rohnert Park and Petaluma are currently building new homes. The smaller cities and unincorporated communities are also doing their part. Changing course to put more new housing on rural lands far from shops, jobs and schools needs to be analyzed as part of the bigger vision for our county through the General Plan update.

Request to Board of Supervisors

1. Provide a date certain timeline for the General Plan Update to be underway not later than 2020/2021 with a specific timeline and resources, with no further delays.

2. Hold off on all development related General Plan amendments or rezoning initiatives with negative environmental impacts until the General Plan update is completed.

3. Uphold California Environmental Quality Act and ensure full environmental review of all projects, avoiding categorical exemptions and negative declarations.

4. Require conditional use permits as currently required and reduce (don’t increase) use of ministerial permits that remove public review and comment.

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