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Winery guideline efforts move forward

Astakeholder group of Sonoma Valley wine industry representatives and neighbor and community groups have been working for the last three years trying to hammer out operating guidelines for future valley wineries and tasting rooms on properties zoned agricultural.

Needless to say, there was a lot of disagreement.

Each side didn’t get everything they wanted, but they came up with a 14-page draft, considered a kind of framework for county decisionmakers when looking at new or modified wine-related permits in the valley, especially in areas that have been designated as over-concentrated with wine facilities – such as Kenwood and Glen Ellen.

‘It’s a compromise,” said Tom Blackwood at the Nov. 18 meeting of the Sonoma Valley Citizen Advisory Commission (SVCAC), a panel reviewing the guidelines.

“There are parts we like and there are parts we don’t like,” said Blackwood, who sat on the stakeholders group as a representative of winery concerns. Blackwood is general manager of Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.

The Sonoma Valley guidelines are an offshoot of a county debate that has been brewing for years about the expansion of the wine industry over the past 20 years and its impact on local, rural communities.

Last spring, the county Board of Supervisors moved away from considering sweeping countywide ordinances regarding wine operations, instead choosing to continue focusing on developing less restrictive guidelines in areas considered over-concentrated – Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road, and Sonoma Valley.

Guidelines are not codified regulations, and are considered more flexible during county review of use permit applications.

The stakeholder group’s draft guidelines tackled thorny issues such as winery and tasting room siting criteria, the percentage of a property’s acres that can be used for accessory uses (such as a barrel room, offices, etc.), food service, hours of operation, parking, etc.

Perhaps the most contentious issue has been events allowed under a given permit– how many, what kind, how big? Beginning a number of years ago, the business model for wineries, especially small and mid-size wineries, emphasized the Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales approach. Events are a big part of a DTC strategy. Bringing the consumer directly to the winery or tasting room has become the norm, bringing more and more customers to wine country The Sonoma Valley stakeholders group decided to break down its guidelines between what it defined as already concentrated areas (Kenwood, Glen Ellen, southern Sonoma Valley), and the rest of the valley. Regarding events, for example, the guidelines state that a total of 20 events a year can occur at wine facilities in concentrated areas, and up to 44 outside of concentrated areas. The different rules for separate areas in the valley brought up concerns from some of the SVCAC commissioners, wondering if the larger event allowances would just drive more applications into the lesser concentrated areas. “You’re opening up less traveled areas to more events,” said SVCAC commissioner Ditty Vella. “I’d like to see the lower limit for everybody.” “What if those areas start to become over-concentrate? How do we manage that,” said Matt Dickey, a SVCAC commissioner representing the Glen Ellen area.

Brookwood responded that it would be up to the county to decide if an area has too many winerelated operations.

“Maybe if an area becomes more concentrated, you pull back and tighten up,” said Brookwood.

Some commissioners also expressed worries about a lack of enforcement teeth in the guidelines.

County staff at the meeting explained the guidelines were advisory, and code enforcement gets involved if specific conditions put into a use permit are violated, usually only after citizen complaints.

“We need to have an event coordinator,” said Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Greg Carr, who sat in on some of the Sonoma Valley stakeholders group meetings. “But there’s not the political will yet to commit to something like that. The industry is not a big fan.”

After discussing the guidelines, the SVCAC voted 7-2 to “accept” the guidelines as presented, as opposed to outright recommending county approval.

In addition, the panel said a map detailing the over-concentrated areas should be updated, and a summary of a recent Sonoma Valley traffic study should be added into the document as well. The SVCAC also recommended the guidelines address the monitoring of winery activities and events.

TheSVCACalsodecidedtolook into creating an ad hoc committee to possibly give more detailed input into the draft guidelines.

Eventually there will be public workshops on the guidelines, and the guidelines will have to be approved by the county’s Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.