Sonoma County's General Plan can guide them through crossroads like this

Delayed General Plan Update Leaves Sonoma County at a Crossroads

Sonoma County is at a crossroads, facing new and ongoing challenges such as climate change and extreme weather, housing needs, and transportation. But while we’re faced with issues that could change the face of our communities and lands for decades to come, an update to the General Plan that should guide our decisionmaking has been postponed for the past three years.

The General Plan and zoning code are intended to provide a vision and path forward, creating long-term certainty for residents and voters. Understandably paused due to the fires and floods that have devastated our communities in recent years, it is now urgent that the County of Sonoma responds to changed conditions since the last General Plan to prepare 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 that 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 on 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, and you can review the documents from the April 16 meeting here.

Most of the priorities are supported by the 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 from tshore@greenbelt.org).

Prioritize for Support

  • Cannabis Ordinance Phase 2: There was a large community turn-out at the public hearing in favor of revising cannabis ordinance.
  • Tree Ordinance: The second strongest community support at the public hearing was for updating the tree ordinance. The County’s Tree Protection Ordinance allows trees including oak woodlands to be cleared for hay and 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. The previous draft sparked controversy due to plans to open up more coastal areas to commercial development.
  • Winery Event Regulations: Long overdue, it is not clear how soon county will move forward, whether draft staff guidelines will ever be released, or if the county will rely entirely on standards developed by wineries and/or neighbors in each area of overconcentration.
  • Sonoma Developmental Center: Has been approved by the board with three years of funding from the state to develop a specific plan that includes on-site housing and protection of open space lands.
  • X Combining Zone Revisions (Vacation rental exclusion zones): There is an 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 homes and businesses. The environmental impact report (EIR) is due out soon for public review.

Do Not Prioritize

  • Airport Specific Plan: This issue is not urgent, violates two urban growth boundaries (Santa Rosa and Windsor), conflicts with existing Sonoma County General Plan which does not allow housing, requires General Plan amendment, controversial, and needs a full EIR. Should be deprioritized at least until UGBs and downtowns are built out.
  • Southeast Santa Rosa/Santa Rosa Avenue Planning: This issue is not urgent and conflicts with the City of Santa Rosa UGB, General Plan, Downtown focus and Renewal Enterprise District. It also requires a full EIR due to critical habitat for endangered tiger salamanders, wetlands, and other sensitive habitats. Has not been on any housing or other priority lists by county or city until just now.
  • New Housing Initiatives: This includes rezoning of non-residential land use and the removal of Z zoning for accessory dwelling units on rural parcels. These issues are not urgent, require a full EIR, are not city-centered, and would increase vehicle miles traveled. The focus should remain on city-centered growth and growth in unincorporated communities, not on 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 must be analyzed as part of the bigger vision for our county through the General Plan update.

Requests to Board of Supervisors

  1. Provide a specific timeline and resources for the General Plan Update that begins no later than 2020/2021 and includes 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 the California Environmental Quality Act and ensure full environmental review of all projects, avoiding categorical exemptions and negative declarations.
  4. Continue to require conditional use permits and reduce, rather than increase, the use of ministerial permits that remove public review and comment.

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