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News: 10/15/2016

Supervisors OK developing winery event rules and definitions

Looking for clear definitions of events, coping with concentration and cumulative impacts

Sonoma County will take another long look at just what constitutes an appropriate “event” on farmlands. The Board of Supervisors will attempt to come up with some official way to manage the growing controversies over the explosive growth of wineries and their tasting rooms, events, and constant tourism – controversies that have developed since direct retail sales were specifically permitted on ag lands in the late 1980s and later expanded to include food service in the 1990s.

On Oct. 11, all five supervisors adopted a limited Resolution of Intention authorizing the Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) to spend money to develop “specific code amendments, and direct staff to develop standards and siting criteria for areas of local concentration, to be adopted either as guidelines or code amendments.”

They also approved $68,272 for legal review of code amendments and development and operational guidelines.

Heavy concentrations of wineries, tasting rooms, events, and associated traffic, have stimulated a spirited pushback from residents of Sonoma Valley, as well as Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road near Healdsburg, who say that the county has refused to evaluate the cumulative impacts of high density winery development and other tourist-related event centers, stimulated by the burgeoning direct-to-consumer marketing plans winery groups say are crucial to economic success in their multi-billion dollar business.

Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane cautioned those looking for speedy changes in county policy. “We’re involved in a process that is deliberative by design,” she said. “A lot of members of the community want to see some very rapid progress, but I’m a firm believer in trial and error, that generally our best public policy is achieved with a genuine infusion of stakeholder involvement.”

Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commissioner Gini Dunlap, who also sits on the Board of the Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA), had another view.

“We are living with a legacy of a past, with projects that have been long permitted now being built 12 years later. Kenwood Vineyard’s (original use permit) was silent on events, but now has new applications in to increase their visitors from 20,000 to 75,000 a year and increase the number of events from 8 to 22.

“I question ‘slow,’ Supervisor Zane,” she said. “The house is burning now.”

The question of winery and event expansion is not new. VOTMA did a major study of potential winery build out in the Sonoma Valley back in 2004 that clearly demonstrated the possibility for rapid expansion in the industry. Since then, there have been increasing confrontations during permit hearings on the matter of cumulative traffic impacts, noise, amplified music, weddings, and other irritants to residents associated with promoting on-the-farm sales and wine consumption.

Countywide, the number of wineries that have adopted the direct-to-consumer business model has jumped several hundred percent in the past decade, bringing a level of traffic and events to the county’s formerly bucolic back roads never before experienced, and jarring local residents’ expectations of peace and quiet.

As the battle over rural retailing escalates, critics and supporters of the industry have intensified public relations and marketing of their points of view to the PRMD commissioners and staff, as well as the Board of Supervisors, with presentations and plans.

Sonoma County Winegrowers hired a powerful marketing professional to develop its response. Karissa Kruse presented their sustainability program to the Planning Agency members back in June, and has been aggressively promoting Sonoma County wines in Europe as well as bringing a prestigious wine industry conference to Santa Rosa last month.

Preserve Rural Sonoma County’s Padi Selwin presented “Trouble in Paradise” and the Westside Community Association put together a slide show on issues that have developed on their iconic Sonoma country road.

Late last month, the Planning Agency heard from VOTMA, the Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and Environment (SAVE), Mike Martini and members of two organizations from Dry Creek Road representing residents and businesses.

The county convened a Winery Working Group of growers, operators and citizen groups to meet as well as hold public hearings to look at the issues back in 2015. While unable to arrive at any major consensus after months of deliberation, some agreement was reached that more study would be OK.

Prior to 1989, wineries were not a problem in the rural reaches of the county. Changes in county policies to open up farm land to retail sales started with the 1989 General Plan Agricultural Resources Element allowing “visitor serving uses in agricultural categories that promote agricultural production in the County, such as tasting rooms, sales and promotion of products grown or processed in the County, educational activities and tours, incidental sales of items related to local area agricultural products, and promotional events that support and are secondary and incidental to local agricultural production.”

Zoning code amendments in 1993 allowed sales and promotion of agricultural products with a use permit, and occasional cultural events with an over-the-counter zoning permit. Food was allowed to be served at tasting rooms and events in 1996.

From 1968 to 1996, the county approved a total of 43 winery permits. Between 1997 and 2004, 86 permits were issued, and from then until 2016, a total of 162. There are now 447 wineries/tasting rooms, according to a PRMD report given to the Supervisors in July.

The PRMD’s resources are currently concentrated on developing marijuana regulations and ordinances this fall, but the department’s action plan calls for them to address the winery events issues next spring. When finished, the results will go to the county Planning Commission for a public hearing and then to the Board of Supervisors for final approval, perhaps in late 2017.


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