Code Change to Encourage Agriculture Processing and Retail Sales

Written By: Karen Giovannini
Published: September 29, 2014

Sonoma County supervisors unanimously voted to reduce permitting requirements to better support local agriculture and enhance Sonoma County’s reputation as a specialty food region.

On July 29, the board of Supervisors approved a zoning code change to allow small-scale agricultural processing and small-scale retail sales on agriculturally zoned properties with a simpler, faster, less-expensive, zoning permit approval process. Prior to that code change, those types of operations required a very costly and time-consuming conditional use permit.

After active participation and input by the agricultural community, the General Plan, adopted by the County Board of Supervisors in 2008, called for different types of agricultural processing and retail sales to be allowed in agricultural areas, and for the permitting to be streamlined where appropriate.

Subsequent discussions occurred between board members, the Permit & Resource Management Department (PRMD), and your Agriculture Ombudsman. In 2012, these discussions resulted in the Board directing PRMD to draft code amendments to simplify the permitting requirements for small start-up operations.  After a number of stakeholder meetings, workshops and public hearings, the draft ordinance reached the Board, was adopted on July 29, 2014 and became effective August 28.

All members of the Board of Supervisors were very supportive of this change and the public comments reflected appreciation and optimism about the new code provisions. The changes made will encourage more agricultural operations to get into the value-added business to create additional streams of income, support their enterprises and to encourage the next generation to consider staying on the farm.  By helping to foster a more robust and diverse agricultural economy, the action also helps assure that agricultural lands will be retained in agricultural production.

Agriculture is beset by a variety of different regulations and an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that create and enforce those regulations.  This code change only affects the permitting requirements under the County’s Zoning Code. So, it is helpful to understand the different land zoning districts and permitting levels for land use.

Land Zoning Districts
Every parcel in the county is defined by a Zoning Code District which is used to categorize how lands are intended to be devoted to different uses such as residential, commercial, resources, etc.  There are three agricultural zoning districts in Sonoma County:

  • LIA – Land Intensive Agriculture
  • LEA – Land Extensive Agriculture
  • DA – Diverse Agriculture

Also included in the “ag zone” category:

  • RRD – Rural & Resource Development (agriculture, mining, forestry)

Not included in the ‘full-fledged’ agricultural zones, but sometimes confused as such is AR: Agriculture & Rural. Find your zoning district on PRMD’s website by using the link located at the end of the article.

Permit Thresholds
Each land zoning district has its own set of permit thresholds for a variety of uses. The permit thresholds are:

  • Allowed By Right – no land use permit required for this use (e.g. growing crops).
  • Zoning Permit required– use is allowed as long as a set of approval and performance standards are met and the zoning permit is issued.
  • Conditional Use Permit required–for those uses which are considered discretionary under the code and may be approved denied, or conditionally approved after conducting required environmental review and public hearings.

Code Change Highlights
The adopted ordinance established a simpler zoning permit approval process for small-scale agricultural processing and small-scale farm retail sales facilities.  It also expanded the types of temporary and seasonal sales that may be conducted at farm stands.  For a full comprehensive listing of the standards, the full ordinance can be reviewed on PRMD’s website (link at end).

The following briefly describes some of the key criteria for a zoning permit under this code change.  These two criterion apply to both small-scale agricultural processing and small-scale retail sales:

  • May only be applied for in the agricultural zones (LIA, LEA, DA) and Rural & Resource Development (RRD) zone.
  • Cost:  The zoning code permit will cost around $600 each.  Prior to the code change, a use permit was required with a cost of around $10,000 or more (including studies and fees).

Small-Scale Agricultural Processing:
As the name implies, this is for small-scale start-up sized facilities.  The intent being that if an operation decides to grow beyond the scope of the zoning permit allowance, they will have an income stream to help offset the cost of the use permit.  A few key criteria are:

  • Minimum parcel size: 2 acres.
  • Maximum building size: 3,000 square feet for 2 acre to less than 5 acre lots. 5,000 square feet for lots of 5 acres or greater
  • Production: At least 70 percent of the agricultural commodities used in processing must be grown on-site or on lands owned or leased by the farm operator.
  • This zoning permit does not allow the processing of alcoholic beverages, animal slaughter, meat processing or cannabis.  A use permit is required for those activities.
  • Groundwater: The County utilizes a mapping and classification system to indicate general areas of groundwater availability in the County as follows:

Class 1 areas are Major Groundwater Basins
Class 2 areas are Major Natural Recharge Areas
Class 3 areas are Marginal Groundwater Availability Areas
Class 4 areas with Low, or Highly Variable, Water Yield

The review requirements for proving adequate groundwater vary by these classes and more thorough analysis, including the possible requirement of test wells in the marginal groundwater availability areas.
For small-scale agricultural processing facilities, the water supply serving a criteria are:

  • Class 1 or 2 is considered adequate water availability
  • Class 3 and/or regions that have adopted groundwater management plans. Preparation of a hydrogeologic report is required
  • Class 4 requires a use permit.

Find your groundwater class on PRMD’s website.

Small-Scale Retail Sales:
A farm’s small-scale retail sales facility is for year-round sales of agricultural products grown or raised on the site or other properties owned or leased by the farm operator, and pre-packaged goods processed from onsite agricultural production.   A few key criteria are:

    • Maximum size of 500 square feet.
    • Hours of operation for year round retail sales: 10am to 6pm.
    • Sale of processed meat or dairy products is allowed
    • This zoning permit does not allow the sale of alcoholic beverages; a use permit is required.

Farmstand Sales:
A farmstand is an area for the temporary or seasonal sales and promotion of agricultural products that are grown or raised on the site. Farmstands are currently allowed by right in the agricultural zoning areas and no permit is required.   This will continue to be the case.  The only change is that a greater variety of sales is allowed under the new “farmstand” definition.

In addition to unprocessed produce, eggs, and honey, it will also allow the sale of pre-packaged, shelf-stable goods, as well as a small amount of incidental sales (e.g. bottled water, logo hats).  Sale of merchandise or goods not produced on site is limited to ten percent of the floor area, up to a maximum of 50 square feet. Shelf-stable goods may be generally thought of as low-risk foods which do not require refrigeration (e.g. jams, pickles, nuts, olive oil).

Other Permits and Clearances
Operations that process and/or allow the tasting of food products will require health permits. Depending upon the type of inputs you are using and products you are making, the operation could be subject to more than one regulatory agency.  In general, dairy processing is regulated by CDFA, other food processing is regulated by the state’s Department of Public Health, and retail sales and tastings are regulated by the county’s Department of Health Services.

Nearly all buildings will require some sort of permit but there are exemptions.  Anything related to building, plumbing, electrical and remodels will most likely require a permit.  Work on septic and wells also requires permits.

Stay of Enforcement
The Board approved a measure proposed by PRMD to stay or refrain from any enforcement actions for a period of six months to allow any existing or proposed operations time to prepare any necessary applications required to bring operations into full compliance.

If you do have this type of operation, you will to want to make it legal. You can do that, without any penalties, by filing a complete application package with PRMD by February 28, 2015.

After the amnesty period, facilities which are not operating per the terms of the zoning permit would be considered in violation of the code and subject to enforcement actions and substantial penalty fees.

Getting Started
Do you want to create a new enterprise on the farm? Here are some suggestions to get started:

  • Talk to others already in the business
  • Check out the county Economic Development Board website resources for starting a business in Sonoma County
  • Create a business plan looking ahead at least 5 years – this will be helpful with the permit process and for any needed financing
  • Check your zoning and permit history using ActiveMap on PRMD’s website
  • Visit PRMD to discuss your plans with their planning desk
  • Contact the Agriculture Ombudsman

Yes, this is a lot of information, but it is not comprehensive.  To learn the fine details, requirements and restrictions, you can visit PRMD’s website or contact the Agriculture Ombudsman to discuss your project:, 565-2328

With a popular interest in local products, this is a great time to venture into the value-added business with delicious artisan foods and products that build on your family’s legacy!

Code Change Ordinance:

PRMD’s ActiveMap:

Agricultural Processing Defined
Agricultural processing is taking the raw product and transforming it into another product, such as using milk to make cheese. Processing does not include: Incidental cleaning, grading, packing, polishing, sizing and similar preparation of crops which are grown on the site, as these activities are “allowed uses” incidental to the agricultural production.

Related Articles

Premium Members

To represent, protect and advance the social, economic and educational interests of the farmers and ranchers of Sonoma County.