New Business and Relocation FAQs for Sonoma Valley California
I think I've found a good location for my business. What do I need to know before I sign the lease?
The process for getting your business up and running with all the required permits and approvals can vary, depending on factors such as your type of business, the location you have chosen, and the tenant improvements you plan to make. Before you sign a lease or announce an opening date, we encourage you to review these FAQs and check in with staff at City Hall (if the location you are considering is within City limits) or Sonoma County PRMD, the Permit and Resource Management Department (if your planned location is in the unincorporated area of Sonoma Valley). Click on the link at the right for a 6-minute video guide to locating your business in Sonoma.
What zoning requirements apply?
City locations: As soon as you find a potential location for your business, speak with staff from both the City of Sonoma Planning Department. Call (707) 938-3681 or stop by the first floor counter at City Hall from 8 a.m. - noon or 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Staff there also works closely with other City departments and other agencies, so they can be very helpful in identifying requirements that may be applicable for your business. Even home-based businesses have certain regulations.
Planning Department staff will be able to determine if your planned use and location comply with zoning regulations (click here to view the City zoning map), and can give you guidance about any reviews or permits that may be needed. Special requirements may apply to chain stores and franchises. If you find out that the zoning for your location does not allow the kind of business you wish to open, the Economic Development Manager may be able to suggest other locations where your business would be allowed or encouraged.
Certain kinds of businesses may require a conditional use permit (CUP). Planning staff will outline the process. CUP applications are reviewed by the Planning Commission, a seven-member body appointed by the City Council that meets monthly. If your CUP is granted, it will include conditions of approval which you will be required to follow. In some instances, it may be necessary to apply for a variance from a specific zoning standard, such as the number of parking spaces required.
If any kind of approval or permit is needed in order to comply with the Zoning Ordinance, be sure to make the lease or purchase of property for your business contingent upon these approvals. Ask City staff what information they will need from you, the approximate fees you can expect, and the estimated timeline. Based on their experience, staff may also be able to give insights about likely issues or concerns with your application.
County locations: The process for County locations is similar. You may be required to have your application reviewed by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Committee. Contact PRMD to learn more about the zoning requirements and the process for your proposed location.
What about Building Permits?
Before you lease space or begin any remodeling, talk to the Building Department staff at City Hall or County PRMD about your plans. This is especially important if you plan to do any renovation to a building or change its use. Building permits are typically required for any structural, nonstructural, electrical, plumbing or mechanical work, whether inside or outside of your building. Although some items do not require a building permit, it is better to find out before you sign a lease. Also, it is wise to not assume that just because your predecessor used the same building for a similar use that you can do the same without a new permit or improvements to the property. Click here for a handout on Tenant Improvement Submittal Requirements prepared by the City of Sonoma.
Sometimes the improvements you are planning will trigger other code requirements, such as fire sprinklers or state energy-efficiency requirements. Almost all improvements requiring a building permit will trigger state requirements for disabled access. In most cases, buildings which do not meet accessibility requirements for entrances and exits, restrooms, parking, etc. must be upgraded prior to opening your business, and this is something you may want to discuss with the building owner. Additional information and resources for business owners about ADA compliance is available through the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce website.
When considering improvements that require a building permit, it's usually to the business owner's benefit to work with a licensed architect to help expedite the permit approval process and a licensed contractor to do the actual improvement work. You may want to take advantage of the City's FAST START Plan Check option, available at no charge if you meet the submittal requirements.
What other Permits and Approvals might be required?
If you plan to sell or handle food or beverages, a permit from the Sonoma County Health Services Department may be required. The County Health Department enforces state regulations pertaining to food handling establishments. Contact them at (707) 527-1888. Effective January 1, 2013, a new state law allows production of some types of foods to be made at home, subject to certain rules. Click here for details.
Just because a facility previously has been used to prepare or sell food does not mean that the Health Department will let you use the same facilities without making any changes or upgrades. Each new operator must apply for a license. You may want to ask the Health Department to see their files on the facility to be aware of any past problems or violations.
Depending on your type of business, additional water or sewer fees may apply. For City locations, staff at the front counter at City Hall can provide information about water fees. Check with the County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), Sanitation Division, at (707) 565-1900 to determine what sewer fees apply to your business, since businesses that increase sewage discharge from what is currently calculated may need to pay additional fees.
Check in with the Sonoma County Water Agency at (707) 547-1900 to determine if a grease trap, grease interceptor, or sand interceptor is required for your business. These are typically required for businesses that may discharge grease or sand into the public sewer systems, such as businesses that cook food, or car washes.
Alcohol sales require special permitting. First check with Planning or PRMD staff to determine if the zoning for your site allows alcohol sales. They can provide you with the contact information at the State Alcohol Beverage Control Board (
What about my business signage?
Your signage and the exterior appearance of your business can play an important role in your success. If your business will be located in the City of Sonoma, the fastest way to get your signs and exterior modifications (awnings, paint color changes, etc.) approved is to check in first with Planning Department staff at (707) 938-3681. Staff can explain when Design Review Commission (DRC) approval is required and provide the necessary application forms. Some types of signs can be approved over the counter, but it is to your benefit to hire a design or signage professional to assist you.The DRC meets only once each month, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Staff can also give you guidance on what types of temporary signage you can use in the meantime. Details are available in a downloadable brochure.
For locations in the unincorporated area, contact Project Review staff at PRMD at (707) 565-1935 for signage requirements.
Many signs and other types of exterior improvements (e.g. awnings, façade improvements) will also need a building permit because they involve electrical or structural work. You may also need an encroachment permit - be sure to check with staff at the front counter.
Is there assistance available for larger projects?
If your business plans involve a major remodel, expansion, or new construction within the City of Sonoma, you can request (or staff may suggest) a meeting with the Project Advisory Committee. This is an inter-departmental committee with City staff to provide early-stage input on development projects at no charge. It can prove extremely valuable in giving you and your architect or project manager a sense of the process, any studies that may be required (traffic, drainage, etc.), timelines, and potential issues associated with your project. Staff can also assist with identifying the agencies and departments that can provide you with an estimate of their respective fees for your project.