Zoning in Sonoma County

Zoning Overview

Zoning is the process by which governments regulate development. Here’s the short list of purposes from the zoning pages of the official Sonoma County web site and a link to the Table of Contents for Sonoma County Zoning

(a) To provide for the orderly and beneficial land use of the county;

(b) To protect the character and social and economic stability of agricultural, residential, commercial, industrial and other communities within the county;

(c) To protect the public safety and welfare by regulating the location and uses of all structures and land;

(d) To protect and conserve the scenic, recreational and natural resource characteristics of the county;

Its hard to argue with the purity of purpose of those four sentences.  When a noisy or night-time business is prevented from opening to protect the residential character of a neighborhood, most of us would approve. When a property owner is prevented from putting up a large home in a small backyard, the neighbors will probably appreciate the county’s effort to preserve their property values and privacy.

Real World Implications

If you are planning to build a home in Sonoma County, the first impact of zoning is on price. In many parts of the country there are no zoning restrictions and farmers and ranchers often convert their property into residential subdivisions.  The ready availability of land for building keeps land costs low, but encourages sprawl development, long commutes, and expensive government infrastructure for roads, water, sewer, education, etc.  In contrast, Sonoma County has a general plan that designates minimum lot sizes and requires detailed studies and reports before approving subdivisions, even in zones where they are allowed. These two factors, minimum lot sizes and control of the subdivision process, keep land expensive relative to any area without zoning.  For instance, the farming areas outside Healdsburg are often zoned with a 20 acre minimum. If you value farm land at $50,000 per acre, that could create a $1,000,000 price tag before you drill a well, install a septic system, or create a road. In the forested hills farther from town, zoning might mandate 80, 160, or even a 320 acre minimum size. If you just want a humble cabin in the woods, you might be forced to buy more land than you really want or have to hunt for an already existing lot that might have been grandfathered into law at a smaller size.

The second impact of zoning is on the control of what you can build and do with your property. A common example of that is someone who wants to build a second home that they want to rent out when they are not there. Vacation rentals are a big business and they can help pay for mortgages and other property improvements. However, in order to protect residential neighborhoods from the impact of partying vacationers, Sonoma County zoning restricts where and how vacation rentals are allowed. You can still create one, but you have to make sure you have purchased the right piece of land. In a similar vein, wedding venues are strongly regulated as to how many events they can have, their hours of operation, when the music has to stop, etc.  These are primarily common sense regulations, but if you aren’t aware of them ahead of time you could end up planning a future that isn’t allowed.

Sonoma County and other jurisdictions

The story doesn’t end with Sonoma County. The nine incorporated cities in Sonoma County have their own guidelines which often differ from county regulations.  If you know where you want to buy land, it pays to study the zoning regulations so you will know what is allowed.