Comments on the Sonoma County Vineyard Ordinance


There has been some debate among local environmentalists about the Sonoma County Vineyard Ordinance that is currently in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. This ordinance puts some limits on vineyards being developed on steep slopes and near stream. It is especially notable because it was developed cooperatively through negotiations between representatives of the environmental and grape-growing communities.

Some environmentalists criticize this ordinance for not going far enough, and even those on the negotiating committee will agree that they wanted much more. But they felt that, to get any ordinance through the current Board of Supervisors, the proposal would need to be supported by both environmental and agricultural interests. Thus they chose this approach.

The letter below from Mark Green, printed in the Sonoma County Independent, describes the benefit that this ordinance offers, by providing at least the start of protection where there was previously almost none.

We would hope that those who would like greater environmental protections locally would put their energy into creating those better protections, either within this pending ordinance or through other means, and support others in doing the same. We feel that this is more productive than sensely attacking the people who worked hard to give us what has been a positive step forward. If we want better, let's just create that.

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Sonoma County Independent
June 24, 1999
Letters Page


Nobody's Perfect

Consider this contrast: In Sonoma County, a homeowner nearly has to walk across fire to get a granny unit approved; yet prior to implementation of the new vineyard-planting ordinance, an agricultural property owner could strip hundreds even thousands of acres of oak forest without any local regulatory oversight at all.

Except in cases where a timber harvest plan or conversion plan is required (only a tiny portion of the vineyard projects in our county each year), vineyard developers have been able to do pretty much what they please without public review. It was exactly because of this regulatory vacuum and growing environmental concern over the rapid expansion of the grape-growing industry that I and other environmentalists spent nearly a year with representatives of the grape-growing industry negotiating provisions of the new ordinance in vineyard planting and replaying. The hard-fought-for result, though a little hard to swallow for all concerned, is a major accomplishment for our county's environment.

The new ordinance means that the public will be notified of the plans of a vineyard developer, that local government will have a say in what happens in developing vineyards (especially on steep slopes), and that the creeks that currently enjoy no protections in our General Plan will have setbacks of 25 feet on lower slopes, 50 feet on slopes over 15 percent. Development of slopes over 50 percent is banned, except for small anomalies that may not constitute more than 7-1/2 percent of the total vineyard acreage. The agricultural commissioner's office will have to approve erosion-control plans on slopes over 15 percent. If they don't believe what was proposed by the grower will work, the grower can't plant until the plan has been made acceptable. If the grower goes ahead anyway, ignores the ordinance, or submits untrue information, he or she is subject to criminal penalties.

From an environmental viewpoint, is that perfect? Of course it isn't. But it's far better than a completely unregulated situation that allowed growers to rip out vegetation right up to the banks of creeks, to develop on any slope they pleased, and to do so without any public notification or regulatory review.

It may feel good to adopt an absolute position and attack anything that doesn't meet your standard of purity, but such posturing doesn't, in my experience, accomplish anything other than attract attention to yourself. Public policymaking is something that happens in the real world. Three steps forward are better than none, whether or not your preference would be 10.


Mark Green
Executive Director
Sonoma County Conservation Action

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