The endless battle to save our Sonoma Coast: Keeping an eye on the Local Coastal Plan update

Tom Roth, Redwood Chapter Conservation Chair

Link to Permit Sonoma’s Local Coastal Plan Update page.

Very few people are familiar with Rancho Del Mar, a place no longer found on Sonoma County maps. It was a sprawling sheep ranch — 5,200 acres — running 10 miles along the northern Sonoma County coast. But when a development company purchased the land in 1963, and renamed it Sea Ranch, it sparked a battle not resolved until 1981 and resulted in the nation’s strongest coastal protection law.

Sea Ranch was envisioned as residential development that blended in with the crashing waves, tall grasses and redwood-studded hills. Yet it engendered legal battles with consequences far beyond its vast ocean horizons. Thanks to the efforts of former County Supervisor Bill Kortum and a merry band of environmentalists calling themselves COAAST, court victories locally increased public participation in planning processes, cut the size of the development in half and eventually secured public access to six Sea Ranch beaches. Statewide, COAAST and an alliance of environmental groups scored even bigger, passing Proposition 20 in 1972, which created the first Coastal Commission.

Four years later, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act, making the Coastal Commission permanent and providing a framework for counties to create their own Local Coastal Programs to ensure permanent protection of the coast’s historic and biotic resources.

The Coastal Commission certified Sonoma County’s first Local Coastal Plan (LCP) in 1980. Three times in the 90s and in 2001, the LCP was updated to reflect changes in the county’s General Plan. The current LCP update process actually began in 2001 and may be completed this summer. Now the public is invited to comment on a Public Review Draft prior to it going to the supervisors (see meeting dates above).

A cursory view of the coast will show little change since current process started. But a closer examination will reveal tremendous changes in the coast’s physical and social environment.

First, there is the reality of climate change affecting everything from greater storm surges to water-borne diseases to increased risk of wildfires. Under the blue waters, a chain of disasters have devastated kelp forests, starfish have literally melted, and abalone are nearly extirpated.

On the plus side, coastal water ecosystems now are protected by two National Marine Sanctuaries, and the establishment of 10 state Marine Protected Areas.

On the land, two large preservation areas now straddle the Russian River estuary: Willow Creek State Park and the Jenner Headlands. Out-of-towners visit the coast in droves—around 2 million a year — while the coastal population is graying and has been in decline. Costs of the coast’s limited and already expensive housing have soared, making coastal living out of reach for most people.

Against this background, Sonoma County planners are attempting to draft a document that will be acceptable to a public that is in love with their coast, but must be restrained from loving it to death with the encouragement of the development community. It’s a tough job, and much in the LCP Public Review Draft is admirable. But given the enormous environmental challenges we face, this work in progress, needs…well, more work.

This 400-plus page document is too big and complex for a complete dissection in this space, but let’s look at a few places that could use improvement:

  • The LCP update has a section about the Sonoma County fishing industry and its problems, yet there is no mention of the 10 Marine Protected Areas, which appear to be making strides in bringing back fish stock.
  • The update supports new aquaculture facilities, but fails to discern between land-based aquaculture and sea based, the latter frequently damaging to migrating salmon.
  • The document’s discussion of climate change is based almost entirely on generalized federal Environmental Protection Agency reporting. With the exception of a discussion of sea-level rise, there is nothing Sonoma Coast-specific, so no actions to protect native flora and fauna are proposed, though there is some discussion of climate change’s effects on crops.
  • There is a call to limit new greenhouse gas emissions through permits, but no discussion about carbon sequestration through forest enhancement and preservation. And as long as we’re on forestry, there’s not a word about forest conversions, nor a mention of logging in a coastal floodplain, as proposed in the Dogwood Timber Harvest Plan.
  • Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas are listed in the update, but categorization of ESHAs have been eliminated. There is no mention of areas of future potentially sensitive habitat.
  • There is no language that weakens the Agricultural Land Element to allow for large-scale wineries and event centers, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to anticipate proposed advantageous ambiguous language. County planners have said that such development is unlikely and not preferred due to lack of appropriate sites, but the LCP update does not close the door to such development.

So why should you participate in this lengthy and complex planning process? You may be interested in sustainable development, housing, recreation and much more in the coastal zone.

Simply put, you can help ensure that the LCP truly reflects real life conditions, community values and the need to address the “climate emergency” that the Sonoma County’s Supervisors have commendably declared.