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News: 11/01/2012

County struggling with what to allow on ag lands

The modern nature of the wine industry and its push for more effective ways to promote its product have led to a vexing problem for county planning officials: what is the scope of activities that should be permitted on agriculturally zoned properties?

The main issue with new winery use permit applications, as well as wineries currently in operation on ag lands, are events. How many should be allowed? What kind of restrictions should there be? Are they agriculture-related? What are the impacts on surrounding neighborhoods?

In Sonoma Valley, the average number of events permitted annually per winery is about 29.

For the last couple of years, members of the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA), and community advisory groups like the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC), have complained that county rules and policies are not clear as how to handle the event issue, and fuzzy when it comes to defining allowable commercial activities on ag land.

“For any given site, what’s the appropriate number and size of events? There’s really no guidance on this,” said Mark Bramfitt, who has been a member of the SVCAC for over a dozen years.

This lack of clarity has often put county decision-making bodies in the middle of passionate arguments. On one side, there are often neighbors who say that the expansion of events and what comes with them (noise, traffic, etc.) negatively affect the rural character of places like Sonoma Valley.

On the other side, there are wineries who argue that events are a necessary component of their business plan, essential in maintaining a customer base, and an aid in helping drive the main economic engines in the county – the wine and tourism industry.

Recently during BZA hearings over the Hamel Family Winery Project in Glen Ellen – letters from two prominent valley residents framed the discussion.

In expressing a number of concerns about the 30,000-case, 23-event proposal, Anne Teller of Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen wrote that, “We did not come to The Valley to listen to auctions and event music, we came to enjoy the bounty of Sonoma County in peace.”

Sonoma Valley restaurateur Sondra Bernstein, writing in support of the same proposal, said, “If the county is going to have wineries, which it will, events are part of the operational landscape…Events promote the wine industry and the food industry and make Sonoma County a great food and wine destination.”

Events have also become an issue in the current election for Sonoma County 1st District Supervisor, as candidates Susan Gorin and John Sawyer have heard a lot on the topic at Sonoma Valley forums.

Sawyer recently said he would not support events with projects until there are discussions among all parties involved; i.e., wine and tourist industry, neighbors, community groups, etc., to come up with solutions.

Gorin said she has always questioned the impacts of winery events on neighboring communities, and has called for a task force to be created to look at the issue and make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors.

Things seem to be moving in the direction of a county-wide discussion. On Nov. 29, 2 p.m., in the hearing room of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), planning officials will be holding a meeting to try and put some specific options on paper regarding events, and then circulate that information to all the stakeholders for input.

Various topics they want to address include whether weddings should be allowed as part of event requests; what should the rules be for amplified music; what’s the definition of an “event” and an “industry-wide event”; should the number of events allowed be dependent on the site size; should there be a periodic review by county planning officials of event activities to see if a winery is complying with a permit’s conditions of approval?

For many, tied into the event discussion is the cumulative effect of approved and future winery and event center projects, and the concentration of such facilities. These are issues that especially pertain to Sonoma Valley and to the county’s west side.

The potential for over-concentration of wineries and event centers on ag land has been described by Planning and Board of Zoning Adjustments commissioner Dick Fogg, who represents Sonoma Valley on the panel, as “mission creep” and “death by a thousand lashes” and “potentially killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Near the end of the discussion of the Hamel Winery project in September, which he and other commissioners unanimously approved, Fogg said some meaningful changes have to be made.

“The planning agency and the county need to shift our focus to the overall impact of new event center/winery expansion, rather than the current practice of trying to make the best of each new proposal on its own merits.”

Fogg went on to endorse a discussion by all stakeholders to broadly discuss and review current General Plan assumptions and guidelines having to do with concentration issues and cumulative impacts.

Editor & Publisher

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