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Responding to Current Threats to the Sonoma Coast - PART 1

By Richard Charter

There is much to be thankful for on the Sonoma Coast, and there’s a lot you can do to protect it right now. Your current opportunities to act on behalf of our coast range from Permit Sonoma’s present process of updating our Local Coastal Plan to President Trump’s unwarranted Sonoma Coast “review” that still threatens our Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

In addition, there remains a looming federal offshore drilling scheme planned for our coast, and we are confronting Caltrans’ proposal to build a giant “Bridge to Nowhere” at Scotty Creek near Sereno del Mar, not to mention the attempted revival of a long-discredited proposal by the US Fish species anticoagulant rat poison pellets onto the Southeast Farallon Island.

Revising Our Local Coastal Plan for the New Era:

California’s statewide Coastal Plan first emerged in large part from the obvious need to preserve our public access to walk and picnic on Sonoma County beaches, beginning at the time that the Sea Ranch development was originally proposed. The local iteration of the State Coastal Plan here is called the Sonoma County Local Coastal Plan (LCP).

Find out how you can directly participate in the rewriting of this plan, at

Significant changes in content from a prior earlier draft of the LCP document have now been proposed by the County, and the latest iteration of the LCP is currently being circulated for public review and comment.

At the heart of our LCP lies the public mandate for the continued protection of Environmentally-Sensitive Habitat Areas, or ESHA, within our Coastal Zone. Protecting ESHA has many implications, from consideration of where and how any new development or land conversion can occur, to determining how public access will be handled, while ensuring that natural areas and wildlife habitat are not compromised.

Watch Out for Exemptions and the Local “Revolving Door”:

As one reviews the current draft of the LCP, one clear crosscutting issue that must be highlighted is that for almost every single provision throughout the modified LCP there would be granted to Permit Sonoma planning staff a very wide margin of discretion in terms of interpretation and implementation.

This staff discretion to waive or alter the parameters of the LCP at will applies to virtually every facet of the document, from preserving ESHA to maintaining appropriate height limits for buildings between Highway One and the ocean to potential expansion of commercial enterprises and even to potential future growth.

Parts of the updated LCP seem to imply that if more water supply and/or wastewater treatment capacity could be added, new expansion of existing town boundaries could then occur, creating a slippery slope for future growth.

This kind of institutionalization of regulatory “wiggle room” in the updated LCP is of particular concern because a new cottage industry has sprung up here in which former Sonoma County employees are aggressively marketing their expensive consulting services and insider personal connections to advise newly-arriving profiteers in circumventing the rules everyone else here locally has long had to live by.

Instead of being overly flexible for those with the money to retain hired gun consultants, the updated LCP needs strong predictability, firm rules and solid growth limits, and should not arbitrarily provide special interests with paid backdoor access to our County planners and decisionmakers.

This applies in particular to consideration of an influx of new event centers and the related inappropriate siting of the wrong kinds of development in the wrong locations, but really, it also extends to virtually every aspect of the LCP.

In other words, the Local Coastal Plan needs to say what it means and then consistently stick to it.

While the revised LCP does not overtly propose that significant large-scale new development be added along the Sonoma Coast anytime soon, transmigration of some of the more concerning aspects of the controversial countywide “General Plan 2020” over into the LCP should not be the preferred option. As one example, the updated LCP draft seems to open the door to conversion of longstanding measures intended to protect commercial fishing-related residential opportunities into unidentified affordable housing that would no longer necessarily be prioritized for fishing families.

Commercial fishing was acknowledged by the drafters of the original LCP as a priority land use in our coastal towns, and should remain so. When the “powers that be” talk about building extensive affordable housing at the coast, we need to first see the specific details about where and how this would occur, lest it all ultimately wind up as just another big vacation rental expansion scheme.

In addition, as agricultural-related uses are defined in the update of the LCP, there should be no place for new or expanded event centers in rural coastal areas where compatible land use designations are nonexistent, there is no adequate road access, and the availability of emergency first responders is wholly inadequate to support such facilities.

Big Changes Coming for the Character of Our Coast:

We can all see rapid changes already taking place on our coast, and what’s being called the “Malibuization” of the Sonoma Coast is obviously unfolding, representing a social and cultural transition from small family-based fishing communities toward predominantly temporary accommodations often operated by distant absentee owners as high-end vacation rentals with very short-term unscreened rotating occupancy.

As a result, new kinds of demands are being placed on transportation, on public services, and on emergency agencies by the resulting dramatic increase in transient visitors. New and uncharacteristic incidents of concern, some involving violence in Old Town Bodega Bay and in Bodega Harbor, highlight the fact that our coastal communities need to at least preserve the option of designating appropriate “No VRBO” zones, as have become a high priority in other Supervisorial Districts, particularly near Sonoma.

The rapid unforeseen transition away from relying on policies developed long ago to support stable cohesive neighborhoods means that we need to see the emergence of the much different kind of planning needed for ever-changing commercial enterprises like clustered vacation rentals.

Appropriate flexibility in how our local public services are funded to meet new kinds of non-resident demands should be considered in the revised LCP as part of this changing social and economic equation. These types of policy issues as we see them reflected in the final LCP will help to guide what kind of place the Sonoma County coast will become.

There is no shortage of imminent threats to our coastal lands and our nearshore waters and “Save the Sonoma Coast” is very much a verb that calls for our own timely active participation.

The unfairly-brief public review period for the LCP update raises a host of other important questions. Should such a broad definition of agricultural operations be granted a blanket exemption from the strict protection of ESHA? Is the LCP mandate going to still be in place for the preservation of our amazing coastal viewsheds and open space?

Is the traffic gridlock now experienced on holiday weekends in Bodega Bay and along the coast beaches, and Jenner’s pedestrian safety and parking challenge, now providing a premonition that spending more public money to recruit even more tourism as a cash cow for County coffers may not be such a good idea if we cannot figure out how to accommodate already-expanding visitor impacts in an orderly fashion?

The Offshore Drilling Threat to the Sonoma Coast:

In response to decades of threats of expanded federal offshore drilling within our nearshore coastal waters, the Sonoma County LCP has long included a 1986 voter-adopted “Onshore Facilities Ordinance”.

This ordinance requires the consent of our voters before approval by the County of any industrial oil and gas processing plant or staging area for offshore drilling along our coast. This same protective ordinance must, of course, continue to be part of the local coastal land use policy in the updated LCP, and will likely become increasingly important to the survival of our proactive coastal land use priorities.

But even the pre-existing protections inherent in the Sonoma County onshore facilities ordinance could hypothetically be circumvented were the California Coastal Commission ever to approve such a facility. Currently, the Trump Administration is proposing two new Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) offshore oil and gas drilling lease sales along our region’s coast as part of their Five-Year OCS Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Plan, but that drilling plan has become politically controversial in so many states that it has been temporarily placed “on hold” by the White House until after the 2020 presidential election.

Separately, in 2015, President Obama added our coastline from Bodega Head up to Point Arena to the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary ( ) in order to permanently protect our nearshore waters from offshore drilling and other damaging pollution.

However, for unknown reasons, these expanded Sanctuary boundaries and the critical environmental protections they provide for the Sonoma Coast and the Southern Mendocino Coast currently remain under review by Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, with no indication of when or what the Administration may decide.

Meanwhile, in a national response to the renewed threat of offshore drilling to regional clean-coast economies in a host of states, the U.S. House of Representatives on September 11, 2019 passed with bipartisan support HR 1941, the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, which would permanently ban offshore drilling along the entirety of the U.S. Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In Washington, the Senate has now been forwarded the House bill and has many legislative opportunities in which to also act to further this important legislation and send it to the President. We’ll see what happens.


Permit Sonoma invites you to attend and provide input at the upcoming public workshops on the Public Review Draft of the Sonoma County Local Coastal Plan.

The Sea Ranch

November 17, 2019, 12 PM- 2 PM Del Mar Hall, 40600 Leeward Rd, The Sea Ranch


Bodega Bay Postponed

The workshop scheduled in Bodega Bay for Saturday October 26th 10 AM – 12 PM, is being postponed due to the active fires in the County and continued fire-hazard warnings this weekend.

Timber Cove Postponed

"It is with regret that we announce a postponement to the meeting that had been scheduled to occur in Timber Cove on Tuesday, November 5th. This meeting, as well as the previously cancelled Bodega Bay Meeting, will be rescheduled to a later date, and we will make an announcement once we are past the current emergency.

Santa Rosa Postponed

The Santa Rosa meeting will also be postponed to take place after the three coastal meetings. Permit Sonoma has assured me that the timeline will be extended as needed to ensure that the community has enough time to adequately review and respond."

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