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County Staff Report on Timber Conversions

COUNTY OF SONOMA
PERMIT AND RESOURCE MANAGEMENT DEPARTMENT

2550 Ventura Avenue, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
(707) 565-1900 FAX (707) 565-1103

DATE: June 20, 2002
TO: GP 2020 Citizens Advisory Committee
FROM: David Schiltgen
SUBJECT: Regulating the conversion of timberlands to nontimber uses.

ISSUE:

In recent years, the County is seeing an increase in the conversion of timberlands and other areas to agricultural use. This trend has raised concern regarding the impact such conversions will have on the long term supply of commercial timberlands. This report will assess the extent of conversions and will propose policy options that could protect the long term availability of land for commercial timberland while supporting compatible agricultural and other uses.

BACKGROUND:

Timber Regulations:

In 1973, in response to confusion and difficulties arising from the multitude of different and conflicting logging rules that had been enacted by different jurisdictions at the local level, the State Legislature adopted the Z'berg-Nejedly Forest Practices Act (FPA) to establish statutes regulating the conduct of timber operations. The Act required the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) to develop Forest Practice Rules (FPR) to "create and maintain an effective and comprehensive system of regulation and use of all timberlands". These rules also include procedures and requirements which must be met before timberlands can be converted to non-timber uses.

Timberland is generally defined as "Land which is available for, and capable of, growing a crop of trees of any commercial species used to produce lumber and other forest products."

In Sonoma County the commercial timber species include Redwood, Douglas fir, and several other conifer species. Timberlands tend to be concentrated in northwestern Sonoma County where conifer and conifer/hardwood forests dominate. CDF estimates there are approximately 375,000 acres of land in Sonoma County that are capable of growing commercial timber. However, not all these lands are currently devoted to timber production and may be devoted to a variety of other uses. While some of these lands may have soil and climate conditions "capable" of growing timber, and may have been forested in earlier decades, in practice, these non-timbered areas have not been considered "available for" timber production and thus have not been considered "timberland" subject to the FPR. As a result, the actual number of acres functioning as timberland in Sonoma County as of March 2002, was approximately 230,000 acres.

In 1976, the legislature adopted the Forest Taxation Reform Act. It requires counties to provide for the zoning of parcels used for the growing and harvesting of timber as "timberland Preserve Zones" (TPZ). A TPZ restricts the use of land to the growing and harvesting of timber and compatible uses approved by the County in return for tax assessment benefits.

The County subsequently designated many parcels as TPZs in the late 1970's. In 1982, the State Legislature adopted the California Timberland Productivity Act (TPA). The TPA was intended to protect properly conducted timber operations from being prohibited or restricted due to conflict or apparent conflict with surrounding land uses. To accomplish this goal, the TPA directed counties to designate timberlands in the General Plan and to zone lands that were devoted to and used for growing and harvesting timber and compatible uses to the "Timberland Production" (TP) zone.

Rather than zone portions of parcels and create split zoning, the County chose to zone entire parcels in the TP district even if portions of the parcel did not qualify as timberland.

Consequently, portions of these parcels are not timberland. All parcels that were previously designated as TPZ were rezoned to the new "Timberland Production (TP)" zone. As of March 2002, the County had approximately 94,000 acres zoned "TP". The designated TP parcels contain approximately 69,000 acres of "timberland" or about 30% of the 230,000 acres of timberland in the County.

General Plan:

In 1989, Sonoma County adopted its current General Plan which set forth the following policies for Natural Resources, Resource & Rural Development Lands, and Forest & Woodland Resources.

The Plan sets forth the following purpose for Natural Resource land use policies:

"The purposes of natural resource land use policy is to protect lands used for timber, geothermal, and mineral resource production and for natural resource conservation. ... The intent is that natural resources areas be managed and conserved and that production activities avoid depletion and promote replenishment of renewable resources."

The General Plan typically placed timberlands and other resource lands in the "Resource and Rural Development" (RRD) Land Use Category. Two of the purposes of this category are to protect lands needed for commercial timber production under the California Timberland Productivity Act and to protect lands needed for agricultural production activities. However, no priority was established to be applied in cases where these two uses might conflict..3 The 1989 General Plan also established the following Goals, Policies and Objectives with regard to Forest and Woodland Resources:

Goal RC-4 Preserve, sustain and restore forestry resources for their
economic, conservation, recreation, and open space values.

Objective RC-4.1: Identify and preserve areas with timber soils and
commercial timber stands for timber production. Avoid incompatible uses in
these areas.

Objective RC-4.2: Minimize the potential adverse impacts of timber
harvesting on economic, conservation, recreation and open space values
and restore harvested areas to production for a future yield.

Policy RC-4a: Apply the "Resources and Rural Development" category to
designate all lands in a "Timberland Production Zone" and adjacent parcels
with timber soils or commercial timber stands.

Policy RC-4b: Review all timber harvest plans for compatibility with general
plan policies and economic viability of the industry.

Policy RC-4c: Where applicable, comment on timber harvest plans in
support of increased protection of Class III streams.

The General Plan also establishes the importance of agricultural production to the County's economy, rural character and city-centered growth.

Since 1989, timber harvest operations have proceeded under the guidance of CDF and the THP review process. As expected, proposed THPs are frequently opposed by the environmental community, local residents, or both. On occasion, individual THPs have raised County General Plan issues, but for the most part, the land use and environmental issues have been addressed at the CDF level.

For the most part, the conversion of large scale timberlands to agricultural and other uses that effectively end timber production on a given site has not been an issue. In recent years, however, as vineyards have expanded into previously unplanted hillsides and forests, conversion applications have increased. This recent increase, while relatively minor to date, suggests a trend that threatens the County's timber base. Minor timber conversions involving less than 3 acres have also occurred and have raised concerns from neighboring residents in
many cases.

Conversion Trends:

CDF keeps records of the large timberland conversions and small conversions exemptions.

Attachment E tallies the acres approved for conversion since 1989. From 1989 through 2001, a total of 721 acres of timberland has been approved for conversion by CDF. A review of the table indicates that 306 acres were converted through large acreage (3 or.4 more acres) conversion requests processed through the Department of Forestry. Out of the 23 large conversion requests which were approved, 21 were for vineyard purposes. Records indicate that virtually all of the vineyard conversions have occurred outside of the TP district, usually in the RRD district. Where conversions have been approved in a TP district, the alternate use was one of public benefit such as a water reservoir for the Sea Ranch community. There are currently applications to convert an additional 364 acres pending at CDF.

The CDF data also indicate that 415 acres, or 57 percent, were converted through small acreage conversions of three acres or less. A significant number of these small acreage conversions were approved from 1992 to 1994. This is attributed to the fact that log prices increased significantly during that period and conversions were routinely approved as ministerial permits. A THP plan prepared by a registered professional forester (RPF) was not required until 1996. Sonoma County's zoning permit requirement for these conversions was also adopted in 1996. From November 1996 to March 2002 a total of 35 minor timber conversions have been approved in the County.

The loss of timberland through the conversion process may be partially offset by new lands brought into timber production. The CDF reports that from 1989 to 2001, a total of 732 acres were planted to commercial timber species. These plantings occurred primarily in the area of the Creighton Ridge fire in 1978 near Cazadero.

The last few years have seen an increased interest in locating vineyards within the coastal timberland regions. Areas with soils in the Goldridge series which are above 1200 feet in elevation appear to be desirable for the raising of Pinot Noir grapes because they are less influenced by coastal fog. The acreage of Pinot Noir Grapes has almost tripled since 1996.

Soils in the Goldridge series are considered timber soils. There are many views as to whether or not economic factors will continue to foster this trend. Some feel that there may a leveling off due to recent vineyard planting. For instance, 43% of the acreage planted in Pinot Noir Grapes have not yet come into production as of 2001. In addition, a leveling off of demand and competition from other grape growing regions in and out of the U.S. may also contribute to a surplus of grapes and wine which will lower prices and reduce new plantings.

However, others feel that the market for Pinot Noir grapes and premium wines will remain strong and thus expect continued applications to convert timberland to vineyards.

INTERESTS:

Many comments were received regarding forest and woodland resources during the initial community meetings and several have been received since. Those comments are attached hereto as Attachment C. Many of those comments concern the cumulative impact of vineyard conversions on timberlands and other forest and woodland areas. Those comments recognize the need to preserve the availability of timberlands not only for the timber they yield, but also for the watershed, wildlife and aesthetic benefits those areas provide.

Other comments take the view that timber production is a type of agriculture and that switching from trees to vineyard or back again is simply switching from one crop to another, a right which has long been recognized in agricultural zones.

While all comments are noted, this issue and report is focused on assessing the impact of such conversions on the County's supply of timberland and identifying General Plan policy options for protecting the long term supply, while recognizing the value of agricultural uses.

ANALYSIS:

As noted above, conversions result in the direct loss of timberland. There is considerable debate as to whether the current rate of conversions will significantly impact the inventory of timberland. Concerns have been expressed that cumulative impacts of such conversions may be considerable especially if the trend continues into the future. If all the pending conversion applications are approved, the total lost acreage affected would increase to 1085 acres, less than one half of 1 percent of the 230,000 acres of timberland in Sonoma County. These figures may cause one to conclude that the loss of timberland is insignificant.

There are, however, other factors to consider. First, many of the timberland acres are not 100 percent commercial timber species but are comprised of a mixture of conifer and hardwood forest. Second, the true inventory of timberlands available for harvesting may actually be less than the acreage suggests because not all owners of timberland seek to log their lands. Third, increased restrictions on logging near streams and other sensitive areas within timberlands may further limit the availability of timber. Given these factors, the importance of retaining existing timberlands becomes a more important priority. In addition, If the new vineyard development in the coastal timberlands proves successful, the demand for high quality wine grapes will surely lead to additional conversion requests.

Current Regulatory Context for Conversions:

Currently, the regulatory requirements for conversions differ depending on whether or not the conversion exceeds 3 acres and whether or not it is in TPZ. The regulations governing timberland conversions are set forth in Article 9 of the Forest Practices Act and Article 7 of Chapter 4 of the Forest Practice Rules.

Process for conversions in TPZ: Conversion of timberland within the TPZ requires the applicant to obtain a Timberland Conversion Permit and prepare a Timber Harvest Plan which has been approved by the CDF. Timberland Conversion Permits are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) but the THPs which are reviewed along with the conversions are subject to the functionally equivalent environmental review procedure with CDF acting as the lead agency. The County may provide comments and recommendations on timberland conversion requests, but it does not have regulatory authority over such conversions. If timberland conversions are proposed in the coastal zone, Section 1108 of the FPR sets forth several additional findings that must be made prior to approval.

Section 1106 of Article 7 of the FPR indicates that CDF shall issue a conversion permit if:
1) The bona fide intent of the applicant to convert is established,
2) The following findings are made pursuant to PRC 4621.2:
a) The conversion is in the public interest, including:

1. Will the alternative use serve a public need; provide a public service; benefit the local community and region, including economic and social benefits; avoid damage or threatened damage to other property, especially public parks and other publicly owned lands; or involve costs and secondary impacts caused by services required by the alternative land use.
2. The adverse environmental impacts of the alternative use and mitigation
thereof. Impacts shall include but not be limited to impacts on lakes, streams, and other waters; wildlife; air quality; and aesthetics.
3. The impact on long term timber supply capability of California, including
the cumulative impact from the conversion of similar properties).
4. The availability of proximate and suitable land to accommodate the alternative land use which lies outside of a TPZ or which would involve the removal of lower quality timberlands from productive use
b) The conversion would not have a substantial unmitigated effect upon the timber growing use or open space use of other land zoned as Timberland
Production and situated within one mile of the exterior boundary of the land i
which the rezoning is proposed, and
c) The soil, slopes and watershed conditions would be suitable for the uses proposed if the conversion is were approved.
3) Findings are made pursuant to PRC 21081 if an environmental impact report is prepared
4) Necessary and feasible mitigations measures have been incorporated into the proposed conversion, and
5) No other proximate and suitable land not within a Timber Production zone is available for the proposed alternative use of timber production lands if PRC 4621.2 applies.

Process for conversions of 3 acres or more outside of TPZ:

A timberland conversion permit and a THP are also required, but findings necessary to approve a conversion of timberland outside of the TPZ are less burdensome. CDF uses the following criteria outlined in Section 1105.2 of the FPR to determine whether to permit a timberland conversion.

Section 1105.2: "The Director shall determine the applicant's bona fide intention to convert in light of the present and predicted economic ability of the applicant to carry out the proposed conversion; the environmental feasibility of the conversion, including, but not limited to, suitability of soils, slope, aspect, quality and quantity of water, and micro climate: adequacy and feasibility of possible measures for mitigation of significant adverse environmental impacts; and other foreseeable factors necessary for successful conversion of the proposed land use.".7

Process for conversions less than 3 acres outside TPZs: The requirements for timberland conversion requests involving less than three acres are different. Pursuant to the FPA, Section 4584 (g) of the Public Resources Code, one-time conversions of less than three acres are exempt from the conversion permit described above. The applicant must file a "Notice of Conversion Exemption Timber Operations", prepared by a registered forester, with CDF pursuant to Section 1104.1 of the Forest Practice Rules.

The FPA regulations exempt these minor conversions, so local agencies have regulatory authority over these parcels. Accordingly, Sonoma County adopted Ordinance 4985 in November 1996, which requires the applicant to obtain for a zoning permit before conducting minor conversions.

Timber Conversions for Agricultural Use:

On RRD lands outside of the TP zone, timber production and agriculture are both permitted uses and there are no policies favoring one over the other or giving one use precedence over the other. As a result, land owners may currently convert timberlands to agriculture while remaining consistent with the General Plan and Zoning Code as long as required timber conversion permits and THP's are obtained. To date, neither CDF nor the County have deemed it appropriate to question the loss of timberlands in these cases.

Within the lands which the County has zoned TP, timber production is the primary use. The only other uses which are allowed are those which are deemed to be "compatible" with timber harvesting -- that is, uses are allowed if the County determines that they will not significantly inhibit the growing and harvesting timber. The County has previously determined that agricultural uses may be allowed as a "compatible use."

The General Plan update provides an opportunity to revisit this issue and adopt, revise or clarify policy to clearly indicate under what circumstances, if any, conversions of timberland should be considered.

OPTIONS:

Staff has formulated a series of options for consideration which, to varying degrees, would address this issue (maps of the timberlands of Sonoma County will be available at the public meeting).

OPTION 1

1. No change in the current approach. The rationale for this option would be that the existing and projected level of timberland conversion is not likely to significantly affect the supply of commercial timberland in the County and that agricultural uses should carry equal weight. Clarification of the current General Plan language would be appropriate for this option as follows:

Revise Objective RC-4.1 to read: "Identify and preserve areas with timber soils and commercial timber stands for timber production. Avoid incompatible uses in these areas, but allow for agricultural uses to be conducted on timberlands"

OPTION 2

2. In order to protect the existing timberland within TPZs, discourage the conversion of timberland by not allowing agricultural uses in the TP zoning district that would result in or require conversion of timberland to non-timber uses. Minor timber conversions are not allowed in TPZs. Of the 94,000 acres of land zoned TP in the county about 69,000 acres is timberland; the remaining 25,000 acres is not considered capable of and available for timber production. This option would allow agriculture in the TP zone only on the 25,000 acres that are not timbered. General Plan language necessary to accomplish this option would be:

-Revise Objective RC-4.1 to read: "Identify and preserve areas with timber soils and commercial timber stands for timber production. Prohibit incompatible uses and the conversion of timberlands to agriculture and other uses which effectively prevent future timber production in these areas."

-Revise the "Purposes and Definition" section of the RRD category (Section 2.8.1 of the Land Use Element) to read:
1. protect timberlands needed for commercial timber production where designated by Timberland Production zoning pursuant to under the California Timberland Productivity Act.
2. protect lands within the Known Geothermal Resources Area (KGRA).
3. protect lands for aggregate resource production as identified in the Aggregate Resources Management Plan.
4. protect natural resource lands including but not limited to watershed, fish, and wildlife habitat and biotic areas.
5. protect against intensive development of lands constrained by geologic hazards, steep slopes, poor slopes, poor soils or water, fire and flood prone areas, biotic and scenic areas, and other constraints.
6. accommodate Protect lands needed for agricultural production activities except on timberlands within areas zoned Timberland Production that are not subject to all the policies of the Agricultural Resources Element.
7. protect county residents from the proliferation of growth in areas in which there are inadequate public services and infrastructure.

Permitted Uses: Single family dwellings, resource management and enhancement activities including but not limited to the management of timber, geothermal and aggregate production, firewood sources, fish and wildlife habitat, and watersheds.

Livestock farming, crop harvesting and public and private schools and churches are included. Lodging campgrounds and similar recreational and visitor serving uses provided that they shall not be inconsistent with the purposes and intent of this category. The extent of recreational and visitor serving uses may be further established in planning area policies. Any uses that would require approval of a timberland conversion permit or would result in the effective loss of timberlands within Timber Production zones are not allowed

-Add policy RC-4e to read as follows:

Policy RC-4e: Revise the Timber Production zoning district to prohibit
agricultural production and other uses which would result in the conversion of timberlands.

OPTION 3

3. Same as Option 1 except broaden restrictions on conversions to all timberlands in the RRD land use category, whether or not they are zoned TP. Minor timber conversions would continue to be allowed and administered as they are now. This option would affect an estimated 194,000 acres of the 230,000 acres of timberland in Sonoma County. The following policy language would be needed:

-Revise Objective RC-4.1 to read: "Identify and preserve areas with timber soils and commercial timber stands for timber production. Avoid incompatible uses and the conversion of timberlands to agriculture and other uses which effectively prevent future timber production in these areas."

-Revise the "Purposes and Definition" section of the RRD category (Section 2.8.1 of the Land Use Element) to read:
1. protect timberlands needed for commercial timber production under the California Timberland Productivity Act.
2. protect lands within the Known Geothermal Resources Area (KGRA).
3. protect lands for aggregate resource production as identified in the Aggregate Resources Management Plan.
4. protect natural resource lands including but not limited to watershed, fish, and wildlife habitat and biotic areas.
5. protect against intensive development of lands constrained by geologic hazards, steep slopes, poor slopes, poor soils or water, fire and flood prone areas, biotic and scenic areas, and other constraints.
6. Accommodate Protect lands needed for agricultural production activities except on timberlands that are not subject to all the policies of the Agricultural Resources Element.
7. protect county residents from the proliferation of growth in areas in which there are inadequate public services and infrastructure.

Permitted Uses: Single family dwellings, resource management and enhancement activities including but not limited to the management of timber, geothermal and aggregate production, firewood sources, fish and wildlife habitat, and watersheds.

Livestock farming, crop harvesting and public and private schools and churches are included. Lodging campgrounds and similar recreational and visitor serving uses provided that they shall not be inconsistent with the purposes and intent of this category. The extent of recreational and visitor serving uses may be further established in planning area policies. Any uses that would require approval of a timberland conversion permit or would result in the effective loss of timberlands are not allowed.

-Add policy RC-4e to read as follows:
Policy RC-4e: Revise the zoning districts which implement the Resources and Rural Development land use category to prohibit agricultural production and other uses which would result in the conversion of timberlands.

OPTION 4

4. Allow agricultural production and other uses on timberlands in the TP zoning district to be considered on a case by case basis though the rezoning and/or use permit process.

Rezoning would be required if the conversion effectively prevented future timber production on the property. Minor timber conversions would continue to be allowed and administered as they are now. This option would affect an estimated 69,000 acres of the 230,000 acres of timberland in Sonoma County. To accomplish this option, the following policy language would be needed:

-Revise Objective RC-4.1 to read: "Identify and preserve areas with timber soils and commercial timber stands for timber production. Avoid incompatible uses in these areas and discourage agriculture and other uses which would result in the conversion of timberlands"

-Add policy RC-4f to read as follows:

Policy RC-4e: Revise the Timberland Production zone to require a use permit for agricultural production and other uses which would result in the
conversion of timberlands. Require rezoning to the appropriate district if the conversion would effectively prevent future timber production on the property.

RECOMMENDATION:

Staff recommends Option 2. It recognizes the interspersed nature of timberlands in Sonoma County and provides landowners with the opportunity to pursue agriculture and timber production activities in the Timber Production zone. It accommodates agriculture as a compatible activity but only as long as it does not result in the conversion of timberlands.

ATTACHMENTS:

A) 1989 General Plan goals, objectives and policies
B) Timberland Production (TP) zone policies from Chapter 26 of the County Code
C) Public comments regarding timber resources
D) Letter from Coastal Forest Alliance
E) Conversions Table
gptimcon.wpd

 

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