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Comprehensive Tree Ordinance Update

trees crane creek oaks

Public Hearing on August 31 and September 21, 2023

August 31, 2023 Meeting
The Planning Commission will hold a continued hearing on August 31, 2023 to consider changes to existing tree regulations with a focus on the Tree Protection Ordinance. This meeting is a continuation of the August 3, 2023 hearing.

September 21, 2023 Meeting
In addition, on September 21, 2023, the Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to discuss a proposed Oak Woodland Combining District.

The Sonoma County General Plan calls for the protection and enhancement of Sonoma County’s natural habitats and diverse plant and animal communities by establishing standards and programs to protect native trees, plant communities, riparian corridors, and timber resources.

The County addresses the protection and enhancement of individual trees and their related plant communities through multiple regulations put in place in the past few decades. Over time, emerging factors like climate change, Sudden Oak Death, drought and wildfire have created new challenges for management of this valuable natural resource.

In light of these challenges, in 2019 the Board of Supervisors approved a two year Work Plan for the Comprehensive Planning Division that directs Permit Sonoma to reevaluate current tree removal regulations. Permit Sonoma has received a Wildfire Resiliency and Recovery Planning Grant through the State of California’s Strategic Growth Council to support this work.


Board of Supervisors Informational Workshop May 18, 2021

On May 18, 2021, the Board of Supervisors held a public workshop with Permit Sonoma staff to discuss existing tree protection policies and standards. At the meeting, staff was asked to continue collecting data and to develop approaches to improve protection of county trees and woodlands. For materials shared at this meeting, including a video of the discussion, please see below:

Board Summary and Attachments (PDF)
Meeting Video (Item begins around 5:26)

Planning Commission Meeting, November 4, 2021

A virtual public meeting was held on November 4 where the Sonoma County Planning Commission received an update from Permit Sonoma staff on current efforts to improve conservation and enhancement of woodland resources. Staff shared the following information:

  • Background of the project
  • Local policy and existing regulations
  • Current data collection and analysis methods
  • Next steps for the project

This item is informational only and no formal action was taken at this meeting.

View meeting agenda and project materials:
Meeting Information

Planning Commission Hearing August 18, 2022

At a public hearing, the Planning Commission reviewed potential updates to the Tree Protection Ordinance, Riparian Corridor Combining Zone, and Timberland Conversion Permits. The Commission requested specific updates to ordinance text to expand the applicability of the Tree Protection Ordinance. Whereas the current ordinance only applies to discretionary permits, the Commission directed staff to update the ordinance to apply to all actions involving the removal of protected tree species over a threshold size. The Commission also asked planning staff to return at a future hearing to provide policy options and analysis regarding current exemptions for agricultural uses, modification of existing mitigation measures, and potential updates to mitigation fees. Staff will return at a future hearing to provide draft ordinance text and policy options that are responsive to the Commission's direction.

Staff Report and Video Recording

Planning Commission Public Workshop September 1, 2022

The Planning Commission held a separate workshop to discuss additional approaches to increasing tree protection beyond the actions considered in the August meeting. This discussion focused primarily on oaks and oak woodlands, and the Commission directed staff to develop oak woodland regulations to help prevent the loss of oak woodlands. Staff will return at a future hearing to provide further options and analysis.

Staff Report and Video Recording

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Why Trees?

Sonoma County is home to a large variety of tree species and tree resources located throughout the county’s urban and rural lands. Trees are a defining feature of the local landscape and a shared resource that provide a variety of community benefits. These benefits are often described as "ecosystem services," or beneficial services that natural systems provide to the county. Trees and their related natural communities provide significant services in both urban and natural settings. Trees and their related natural communities provide significant services in both urban and natural settings. Maintaining and increasing these services is key to achieving resiliency and sustainability for Sonoma County.

Aesthetic or visual value Air purification Forest products
Sense of place Water quality Fuel / firewood
Cultural heritage Carbon sequestration Fish and game
Spiritual and religious value Noise reduction Forage
Recreation / tourism Soil retention  
Historic value Wildlife habitat  

Aerial photo of vineyard, woodland and rangeland in the Santa Rosa Plain
(Aerial photo of vineyard, woodland and rangeland in the Santa Rosa Plain)

Existing Regulations

Sonoma County currently addresses management of tree resources through multiple sections of the County Municipal Code, including the following:

Tree Protection Ordinance (est. 1989). This ordinance requires that applicants for discretionary development permits identify trees proposed for removal and trees proposed for protection. If trees are planned to be protected, tree protection measures are required during construction. If trees that were not planned for removal are damaged, replacements or payment of an in-lieu fee is required. The ordinance provides protections to eleven specific species of trees, including madrone, big leaf maple, bay, redwood and seven varieties of oak. Ministerial permits (e.g. most single family residences) and a majority of agricultural activities (e.g. vineyard development) are exempt from the ordinance.

Heritage and Landmark Tree Ordinance (est. 1986). This ordinance provides a process for trees to be nominated for special protections based on age, size, shape, rarity, or location. Anyone can nominate a tree, but the property owner must agree to the nomination. The Board of Supervisors considers the nomination and may recognize the tree in a public meeting, and the property owner receives a certificate and plaque to be placed on or near the tree to notify all persons of the special status and protections. A notice is filed at the Sonoma County Recorder’s Office to support continued awareness and protection. Around 50 trees have been recognized through this process.

Valley Oak Habitat Combining Zone (est. 1996). The purpose of this zone is to protect and enhance one particular tree species and plant community type, the valley oak (Quercus lobata) and valley oak woodland. The district was applied to parcels with soils that typically support valley oaks. In this zone, a permit is required to cut down any valley oak tree with a diameter at breast height (dbh) greater than 20 inches, or multiple trees having a cumulative dbh greater than 60 inches. The applicant must mitigate the resulting loss of trees by methods specified in the ordinance, such as by retaining other valley oaks on the property, planting replacement valley oaks on- or off-site, or paying an in-lieu fee per tree to support a county parks planting program.

Riparian Corridor Combining Zone (est. 2014). The zone is intended to protect and enhance the natural function and biotic value of streams and adjacent areas. The zone is intended to balance the demand for uses like agriculture, urban development, timber and mining operations with the preservation of riparian vegetation, protection of water resources, floodplain management, wildlife habitat and movement, stream shade, fisheries, water quality, slope stability, groundwater recharge, opportunities for recreation, education and aesthetic appreciation. The ordinance prohibits grading, vegetation removal, agricultural cultivation, structures and roads within recognized stream channels or streamside conservation areas, with limited exceptions.

Timberland Production Zoning District. This district provides for timberland zoning, a yield tax imposed at the time of harvest, and the conservation and protection of land capable of producing timber and forest products. This zoning ensures that there remains land designated with a highest and best use for growing and harvesting timber.

Oak Woodland CEQA Requirement.  Although not a County regulation or policy, as CEQA lead agency for discretionary land use permits, the County is required to implement the Oak Woodland Conversion CEQA guideline (Section 21083.4) which in certain instances requires avoidance, minimization and mitigation of impacts to oak woodlands.

For more information on these and other county regulations affecting tree removal, please see the following links.

  1. Tree Protection Ordinance (Section 26-88-010(m))
  2. Heritage or Landmark Tree Ordinance (Chapter 26D)
  3. Valley Oak Habitat Combining Zone (Section 26-67)
  4. Riparian Corridor Combining Zone (Section 26-65)
  5. VESCO Ordinance (Vineyard and Orchard Site Development and Agricultural Grading and Drainage – Chapter 36)
  6. Abatement of Hazardous Vegetation and Combustible Materials (Chapter 13A)
  7. Timberland Production Zoning District (26-14)
  8. Timberland Conversion (Section 26-88-140/150/160)

General Plan Policies

General Plan Goals, Objectives and Policies provide initial direction for this initiative, including but not limited to the following:

  • Goal OSRC-7: Protect and enhance the County’s natural habitats and diverse plant and animal communities.
  • Objective OSRC-7.5: Maintain connectivity between natural habitat areas.
  • Objective OSRC-7.6: Establish standards and programs to protect native trees and plant communities.
  • Objective OSRC-7.8: Encourage voluntary efforts to restore and enhance biotic habitat.
  • Policy OSRC-7a: Designate as Biotic Habitat Areas in the Open Space and Resource Conservation Element the known locations shown on Figures OSRC-5a through OSRC-5i and identified as Special Status Species Habitat, Marshes and Wetlands, Sensitive Natural Communities, and Habitat Connectivity Corridors.
  • Policy OSRC-7k: Require the identification, preservation and protection of native trees and woodlands in the design of discretionary projects, and, to the maximum extent practicable minimize the removal of native trees and fragmentation of woodlands, require any trees removed to be replaced, preferably on the site, and provide permanent protection of other existing woodlands where replacement planting does not provide adequate mitigation.
  • Policy OSRC-7l: Identify important oak woodlands, assess current protection, identify options to provide greater protection of oak woodlands and their role in connectivity, water quality and scenic resources, and develop recommendations for regulatory protection and voluntary programs to protect and enhance oak woodlands through education, technical assistance, easements and incentives.
  • Policy OSRC-7m: Designate important valley oak habitat areas, reevaluate current designations, and apply a Valley Oak Habitat combining district zoning that requires adequate mitigation for trees removed and monitoring of replacement tree survival.
  • Policy OSRC-7n: Encourage landowners to voluntarily participate in a program that protects officially designated individual trees or groves that either have historical interest or significant or have outstanding size, age, rarity, shape or location.
  • Policy OSRC-7u: Identify and consider designation of old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir as sensitive natural communities. Encourage preservation and public acquisition of remaining old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir forests in private ownership with the County. Because of their rarity and biological importance, these sensitive natural community types should be made priorities for protection through conservation easements, fee title purchase, or other mechanisms.
  • Goal OSRC-12: Preserve, sustain and restore forestry resources for their economic, conservation, recreation and open space values.