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Land Use in the Sonoma Coastal Zone


Land Use in the Sonoma Coastal Zone

By Eric Koenigshofer

On January 12, 2016, the Board of Supervisors will make an important decision regarding coastal land use policy. Here is the story…

In November, 1972, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative. By a margin of 55% to 45% Californians laid down the law regarding protection of the coast and access to the shore. Four years later the State Legislature enacted the 1976 Coastal Act permanently protecting our magnificent 1,000 mile coastline.

The Coastal Zone, the geographic area subject to the Coastal Act, is very specific. Within this zone local land use policy is required to conform to the larger statewide policy interests expressed in the 1976 Coastal Act. In other words, land use and development decisions in the Coastal Zone must meet certain statewide policy objectives on matters such as environmental protection, public recreation and access to the beach.

Sonoma County accounts for 60 miles of the California coast. And the type of land use which can and cannot take place within that 60 miles of coastline is set forth in the Local Coastal Program (LCP) of Sonoma County. The LCP is a set of regulations based on both state and local policies and the local policies cannot subvert or override state policy interests. 

The upcoming January 12th public hearing 

On Highway 1 between Valley Ford and Bodega Bay there is an establishment called the Sonoma Coast Villa. The Sonoma Coast Villa was approved in 1985 and provides lodging and restaurant services. This property is within the Coastal Zone and subject to the statewide policy interests noted above. In the context of the LCP this business is considered a “visitor serving facility” since lodging and food are needed services for those Californians who come to the coast from some distance. These services support public access to the coast and are distinguished from “non-coastal dependent commercial” businesses. 

In 2012 an application was filed seeking a Use Permit for a private residential care facility which would result in the end of lodging and restaurant services. In 2013 the Use Permit was approved by the Planning Commission. I and others brought to the attention of County staff at PRMD that the Use Permit was erroneously approved and that staff failed to require a Coastal Permit for the change of use from “visitor serving” to “non-coastal dependent commercial” (a residential care facility can be located anywhere and is not coastal dependent). Staff initially took the position that the change of use, the “conversion,” was not a “project” for Coastal Act purposes.

In a meeting with senior staff at PRMD and an attorney for the County, I pointed to the California Supreme Court case of Pacific Palisades Bowl Mobile Estates v, City of Los Angeles, 2012, (55 Cal 4th 783), which is on point as to the requirement for a Coastal Permit. In that case, changing the ownership structure of a mobile home park was considered to be a “project” requiring a Coastal Permit. The Supreme Court said “An expansive interpretation of “development” is consistent with the mandate that the California Coastal Act of 1976 is to be liberally construed to accomplish its purposes and objectives.” The Justices also said “…the requirements of the 1976 Act apply to a proposed conversion, within California’s coastal zone, of a mobile home park from tenant occupancy to resident ownership.” Sonoma County staff then agreed that the proposed conversion from lodging and restaurant to residential treatment center required a coastal permit and sent the proposal back to first base. 

The owner subsequently filed an application for a Coastal Permit and a Use Permit. On August 20, 2015, the Planning Commission approved the project on a split vote. I appealed this decision and the matter will be heard by the Board of Supervisors in January.

Should the approval be overturned by the Board of Supervisors? 

The issue is quite straight forward. The existing facility is a visitor serving facility and the proposed treatment center is a non-coastal dependent commercial use. On its own the non-coastal dependent commercial use is out of favor in the coastal zone since it can be located elsewhere and has no nexus to the 1976 Coastal Act policy values. What makes this project even worse is that it eliminates an existing preferred use…visitor serving lodging and restaurant!

Now for the kicker. Within the last couple of years the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District along with the California Coastal Conservancy have spent nearly $1.5 million of public funds (your money) acquiring easements on a ranch directly across Highway 1 from the Sonoma Coast Villa. The easements include planned hiking trails of nearly 6 miles, parking and also access to the Estero Americano a popular kayaking venue. The idea of eliminating lodging and food services directly across the road from this substantial public investment in public recreation makes no sense at all. 

The proposed residential treatment facility should be denied. The Planning Commission should be over-ruled by the Board of Supervisors. 

The existing visitor serving facility should remain open. If the current owner doesn’t want to run the existing business he should sell it to someone who does. The potential for a revitalized visitor serving business in light of the public investment across the road will attract an owner who wants to run a business consistent with public policy.

Mark your calendar, January 12, 2016, to support the integrity of the 1976 Coastal Act and the Sonoma County Local Coastal Program.


Eric Koenigshofer can be reached at or (707) 874-2389