The Riparian Riddle

Written By: Tito Sasaki, President, Farm Bureau Foundation
Published: October 31, 2014

On August 28, the Sonoma County Planning Commission
voted to send the new Riparian Corridors zoning code amendments to the Board of Supervisors for adoption, with a 4-1 vote. The regulations will cover some 3,200 miles of streams in the county, setting aside 200 foot, 100 foot or 50 foot setbacks on both sides of the banks depending on the locations of the streams. The Commission staff says that the codification was simply to clarify the already adopted General Plan policies. Any question about the legitimacy of the policies on riparian corridors was, in the view of the staff and the Commission, “out of order” because the General Plan is a legitimate document.
Many public comments were questioning the policies’ legitimacy not on their adoption process but on their scientific and legal soundness. Many people have voiced their fear that the new regulations would infringe on private property rights and others questioned the environmental needs for the uniform setback requirements.
Imagine if someone had bought a piece of property along a stream hoping to build his home close to the water. He would be motivated to keep the stream clean and cool, and may even work with his neighbors so that they may enjoy a better riparian environment. The regulations would not only deprive him of his rights and property value but also discourage him from improving the environment. Regulations are to make citizens obey, not to allow them to take charge.
The General Plan policies on setbacks were a compromise between the drive to make the riparian corridors unfettered by human imprints and the necessity of using at least portions of them for human benefit. The proposed zoning is, as the Planning staff says, the straight codification of these compromised policies with minor adjustments and clarifications.
For those who are affected by the riparian corridor regulations there are two ways to face the new situation. One is to live with it, hoping you can survive with whatever restrictions you may have to put up with. The Farm Bureau has worked to minimize the damage by asking for the needed exemptions. In this bargaining process, however, we became less certain of the meaningful purpose of the regulations.
The other possible approach, though not debated so far, is to forge new regulations out of the existing policies that are purposeful, rational, and equitable – in other words, legitimate.
As Henry Kissinger said, a political system must be built on legitimacy and power. Power without legitimacy will destroy itself. Nobody doubts that the Board of Supervisors has the power to adopt policies and regulations. What’s in question is if the Riparian Corridors policy and zoning have legitimacy.
Legitimacy in this context stands on legal, political and moral justifications. It cannot be neatly defined. Rather, it has to be reflected on by the policy makers each time when a decision is made. The more complex an issue is, the more time policy makers need to make the resolution legitimate and persuasive.
The proposed zoning is now highly complex, as the task of implementing it in agricultural areas is thrusted upon the Ag Commissioner.   It’s a result of patchwork over patchwork. It is uncertain if we can bring this issue to an end without stepping back to look at the whole picture and devising a new legitimate solution.

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