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Local Coastal Program Frequently Asked Questions

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Frequently asked questions and answers related to Sonoma County's Local Coastal Program.

Updated: March 2024

What is a Local Coastal Program?

In 1976, the California Legislature enacted the Coastal Act, which created a mandate for coastal counties to manage the conservation and development of coastal resources through a comprehensive planning and regulatory program called the Local Coastal Program. The primary goal of the Local Coastal Program is to ensure that the local government’s land use plans, zoning ordinances, zoning maps, and implementation actions within the Coastal Zone are consistent with the requirements, provisions, and policies of the California Coastal Act.

In Sonoma County, the Local Coastal Program consists of three components: The local Coastal Plan, the Coastal Zoning Ordinance, and the Coastal Administrative Manual. The Local Coastal Plan is a broad, long-range policy document that guides resource protection and future development in the Coastal Zone, which is implemented through the Coastal Zoning Ordinance and Coastal Administrative Manual.

Once the Local Coastal Plan has been recommended by the Planning Commission and approved by the Board of Supervisors, it will be reviewed by the California Coastal Commission and certified for consistency with the California Coastal Act. Once certified, the updated Local Coastal Plan policies will be the standard of review for development in the Coastal Zone, with the exception of jurisdiction retained by the Coastal Commission, which included public trust lands and tidelands, as well as appeals to approvals between the first public road and the sea; within 300 feet of a beach or the mean high tideline where there is no beach; within 300 feet of a coastal bluff edge; or within 100 feet of a wetland, estuary, or stream.

What is difference between the Local Coastal Program and Local Coastal Plan?

The Local Coastal Program is a comprehensive planning and regulatory framework that guides local development in the coastal zone, in partnership with the Coastal Commission. While all Local Coastal Programs must be certified by the Coastal Commission, the structure of a Local Coastal Programs will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in order to reflect the unique characteristics of individual local coastal communities.

The Sonoma County Local Coastal Program currently consists of three documents: The Local Coastal Plan, serving as the master planning document for the Sonoma Coast, the Coastal Zoning Ordinance, implementing the land use policies of the Local Coastal Plan, and the Administrative Manual, providing specific guidance on processing Coastal Development Permits.

“Local Coastal Program” and “Local Coastal Plan” are similar sounding and often confused with each other. The project currently underway is an update to the Local Coastal Plan, not the entire Local Coastal Program. The Coastal Zoning Ordinance will be updated once the Local Coastal Plan has been certified by the Coastal Commission. The Administrative Manual will be incorporated into the Local Coastal Plan.

Once the Local Coastal Plan is approved by the Coastal Commission, permitting authority in the Coastal Zone is transferred to the County with the exception of tidelands, submerged lands, and public trust lands. In certain cases, the Coastal Commission may act on appeals of County permit decisions.

What is the history of the Local Coastal Plan?

The process of preparing the Sonoma County Local Coastal Plan (LCP) began in 1978, and from the beginning included strong citizen participation. The Draft LCP was completed and adopted by the Board of Supervisors in May 1980, certified by the Coastal Commission in December 1980, and became effective in January 1981.

However, the adoption and certification of The Sea Ranch portion of the LCP were deferred due to disagreement about public access and pending litigation between the developer Oceanic and the Coastal Commission. Following the resolution of these issues with a settlement agreement, the County developed the Land Use Plan for The Sea Ranch. In 1982 the Coastal Commission certified The Sea Ranch portion of the LCP and the LCP implementation plan that included the Administrative Manual and the Coastal Zoning Ordinance.

In 1989 the County adopted a new General Plan, which directed the County to update and revise the Local Coastal Plan to be consistent with the new General Plan. In 1993, 1995, 1999, and 2001 the Coastal Commission certified amendments to the LCP, which adopted technical changes to ensure consistency with the General Plan.

What is coastal development?

“Development” is broadly defined by the Coastal Act. In general, all activities are considered development unless specifically listed as exempt from permit requirements by the Local Coastal Plan. Coastal development also includes activities not generally associated with development such as lot line adjustments, special events, and maintenance of existing roads.

What is the relationship between the Local Coastal Plan and Coastal Zoning Code?

The Local Coastal Plan serves as the general plan for the Coastal Zone. The Local Coastal Plan is a long range policy document that guides all development activities in the Coastal Zone.

What is the Coastal Zone?

The Coastal Zone was legislatively mapped under the California Coastal Act of 1976; the Coastal Commission is the sole authority with regard to interpretation or modification of the Coastal Zone boundary. This area is generally defined as the area between the first coastal ridgeline and a point 3 miles seaward of the line of mean high tide. This area does not include San Francisco Bay, which is regulated by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Local Coastal Plans apply to the Coastal Zone between mean high tide and the first coastal ridge; development on tidal lands and within the offshore zone is regulated directly the Coastal Commission.

View Map of Coastal Zone (PDF: 746 kB)

What is a Principally Permitted Use?

The Coastal Commission requires that a single Principally Permitted Use be defined for each land use category. As part of the certification process for the Local Coastal Plan, the Coastal Commission makes a determination that the Principally Permitted Use within that land use category is consistent with the Coastal Act. Because the Coastal Commission has determined these uses to be consistent with the Coastal Act, approval of permits for Principally Permitted Use that is consistent with Local Coastal Plan land use is not subject to appeal to the Commission.

Regardless of land use designation, no use is considered principally permitted if it is within an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area or a major viewshed (as designated in the Open Space and Resource Conservation Element). For example, if a wetland was affected by development of a single family home on a residential parcel, this would not be considered a Principally Permitted Use and approval of the Coastal Permit could be appealed to the Coastal Commission.

Outside of commercial land use designations all commercial uses that require a coastal development permit are appealable to the Coastal Commission. Specifically, wineries and other agricultural processing permits on agricultural lands are appealable

What are Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas?

An Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area is an area in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their specific nature or role in an ecosystem, and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments. Mapping of potential Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas will be included in the Open Space and Resource Conservation Element.

The Local Coastal Plan states that these maps do not represent an absolute limit of all known Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas. Environmental review is part of the Coastal permit process and any site that meets the criteria for an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area is given all the protection provided the Local Coastal Plan policies for protection of Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas.
The Local Coastal Plan’s Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas policies will generally not apply to marine habitats which are protected separately and under direct jurisdiction of the Coastal Commission.

What is “density”?

Residential density is the land area required per residential dwelling unit. In low density residential and agricultural land uses, this is generally a number of acres per dwelling unit. In developed areas with urban services, it is generally dwelling units per acre.

The most important function of density is determining subdivision potential. For example, if land use for a parcel is Rural Residential with a 5 acre density, a 20 acre parcel could be split into 4 parcels, while a 19 acre parcel could only be split into 3 parcels.

In developed areas, residential density also determines how many units can be in a multi-unit building. For example, a 1 acre Medium Density residential parcel with a density of 8 units per acre could be developed with an 8-unit apartment or (if the developer is very creative) 8 small individual units.

Residential densities are based on availability of public services and infrastructure, land use compatibility, environmental suitability, projected population and development, and neighborhood character.

How is timber harvest regulated in the Coastal Zone?

Timber harvests in the Sonoma County Coastal Zone are Coastal Commission Special Treatment Areas adopted by the Coastal Commission on July 5, 1977. Special Treatment Areas are forest areas designated within the Coastal Zone that constitutes a significant wildlife and/or plant habitat area, area of special scenic significance, and any land where Timber Operations could adversely affect public recreation areas or the biological productivity of any wetland, estuary, or Stream especially valuable because of its role in a coastal ecosystem. Timber harvest plans are reviewed by both Cal Fire and the Coastal Commission prior to approval.

Coastal Commission Special Treatment Areas have been designated according to the following criteria:

  1. Scenic View Corridors
  2. Sites of significant scenic value
  3. Wetlands, lagoons, Streams, estuaries, and marine environments
  4. Significant animal and plant habitat areas
  5. Recreation areas

The following is a listing of the Coastal Commission Special Treatment Areas in Sonoma County. In parentheses following the name of each area are capital letters indicating the specific criteria as listed above. The letters referencing the criteria are listed in order of priority of the significance of the various criteria applicable to the area:

Sonoma County: Gualala River (B,C), Sea Ranch Area (A), Stewarts Point Area (A), Horseshoe Cove Area (C,B,E), Stockoff Creek and Kolmer Gulch (B,C,D), Fort Ross (A,B), Mill Gulch (A,B), Timber Gulch (A,B), Russian Gulch (A), Sawmill Gulch (A), Sheephouse Creek (A,C,D), Duncan Mills Marsh (A,C,D), South Side of the Russian River (A,B,C,D,E), Willow Creek Headwaters (C,D), Jenner Gulch (C,D), Slaughterhouse Gulch (A,D), Furlong Gulch (A,D), Scotty Creek (C,D), Rough Creek (C,D).

1037.5 - Local review teams will have representatives of the California Coastal Commission for plans in the Coastal Zone.

How is conversion of timberland to agricultural use regulated?

Almost all of the commercial timberland in the Coastal Zone is located between the Russian and Gualala Rivers. Land use for timberlands in this area is either Timber or Public Facilities. Lands within the Public Facilities land use are public parklands or protected open space. Agriculture is not a permitted use within the Timber land use.