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Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission suggests strong wine event guidelines

Revised proposal for coping with new wine event guidelines may meet stiff opposition

By Jay Gamel

Sonoma County has been trying to get a handle on the number of wine-related events and associated traffic since the industry exploded in the late 1970s and 80s.

A set of event regulations is being developed for the whole county, along with more detailed, cautionary event guidelines specific to three rural areas where wineries have proliferated. Those would be overseen by local Citizen Advisory Commissions (CACs) whose members can advise but not rule on applications. Their advice is considered by county planning commissioners and district supervisors.

Before 1989, retail sales and tasting rooms on agricultural lands required a use permit, and events or promotional activities were not allowed. However, “Since 1993, when zoning code amendments were adopted to allow promotional activities and events (with a use permit), the wine industry has increasingly shifted the mode of wine marketing to focus on direct-toconsumer sales,” the Planning Commission staff report for county-wide regulation states. “This shift has driven an increase in promotional activities and events that bring customers to agricultural areas for wine release parties, winemaker dinners, industry-wide events and other gatherings that have, in some situations, resulted in neighborhood impacts and potential land use conflicts. Many wineries have applied for modifications to their use permits.”

As of now, of the 464 winery and tasting room permits approved in unincorporated Winery Events– from page 13

Sonoma County, 307 allow visitor serving uses such as tasting and events. “Most of the permitted tasting rooms are allowed to participate in industry-wide events unless prohibited in the use permit. Use permits also specify other promotional activities and events depending upon site constraints and marketing plans of the operator,” the report says.

In 2014 and 2015, Dry Creek Valley, Mark West Road, and Sonoma Valley were identified as rural areas of possible “overconcentration”—areas generating neighborhood complaints. Each has sought to develop local guidelines with varying success.

Dry Creek residents worked with local wineries and agreed to a set of guidelines that were adopted in March of 2018. Mark West Road stakeholders — winery owners and residents — have yet to agree on much at all. Sonoma Valley’s CAC was presented a set of guidelines along with a critical traffic study last November 12, though the guidelines presented at their May 26 meeting were substantially different from those the stakeholders group proposed earlier.

Though begun back in 2015, Sonoma Valley’s guidelines were delayed until last fall by wildfires, flooding, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Having any restrictions on events aimed at drawing customers to wineries is not a comfortable fit for a powerful industry that generates the lion’s share of commercial income and taxes for Sonoma County.

Working with the guidelines suggested by a stakeholder group of industry workers and residents, Matt Dickey and Margaret Spaulding, working as an ad hoc group, came up with “significant changes” to a November 2020 version presented by Permit Sonoma. Those event guidelines were unanimously recommended for adoption by the SVCAC at their May 27 meeting.

The changes from the initial guidelines submitted by Permit Sonoma last November would: –Identify the entirety of the Sonoma Valley Planning Area as over-concentrated.

–Limit the total number of events to 12 per year per winery.

–Limit the concentration of wineries to two per half-mile of roadway.

–Increase the minimum parcel size for tasting rooms from 10 acres to 20 acres.

–Limit the percentage of permanent structures to 20 percent for hospitality uses and to 10 percent for administrative uses.

–Require events to be cancelled when a red flag warning has been declared in the subject area.

Furthermore, rather than struggle to classify every kind of event and activity, they called for defining an “event” as a gathering of a specific number of people, suggesting 30, but open to a higher or lower number.

They found that traffic is “the single most troublesome condition of winery operations for neighboring residents,” and urged the county to follow suggestions made in a traffic study of Sonoma Valley, including improving design standards, continuing to use the Highway Capacity Manual to determine traffic loads, and improving data collection.

The new guidelines suggest that the county work with the industry to adopt procedures and standards for industry-wide events and suggested limiting larger events to off-season.

The new guidelines also strongly suggest that the county improve monitoring and oversight of events and even coordinate with the timing of large non-industry events, like automobile and bicycle races, that can severely impact traffic, particularly during fire season.

“The County should fund and maintain designated event coordinators and monitors, establish review periods, and introduce steps to improve winery compliance,” the new guideline introduction states.

The county has no enforcement personnel available on weekends and nights, exofficio member Gregg Carr noted. Money for more people and monitoring could come from the county’s 12 percent Tourist Occupancy Tax (TOT) on overnight stays. The TOT tax revenue rose from $18 million in 2010 to over $48 million in 2019, according to the county’s annual tourism report. About four percent of those taxes are allocated to tourism marketing.

The revised guidelines provoked a strong response from people in the wine industry. “Canceling events at wineries with red flag warnings is unfair to them as venues,” Josette Eicher said. “Other event venues won’t have to cancel. Think about the other small businesses that will be impacted, floral designers, photographers, videographers, officiants, caterers, party rentals, wedding planners, bakers. We just went through this with COVID. This stood out to me and will be hard on small businesses.”

Tom Blackwood, a member of the board of directors of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance who has worked with stakeholders developing the special guidelines since the beginning, was nonplussed. “To see such a dramatic change is very surprising to us, very disappointing, and is going to make it difficult for us to support this,” he said. “I’m not aware of many wineries that don’t serve guests; it’s part of who we are, a relationship business, and people like to visit the land, to talk about small family farming and farmers. They are going to need visitors.”

Roger Peters, however, had a different view. “The problem with the prior draft, it created a menu of so many different subsets of events, you almost felt like a whack-a-mole situation, where you can’t do this, but that’s allowed over there. This is a simplification that I think is appropriate. This process did start in 2014 and 2015, before the fires.”

“While I totally appreciate the impact cancelling an event because of emergency has on livelihood, we are trying to prevent loss of lives. It has to be weighed differently,” Commissioner Mark Bramfitt said. “We are all getting used to inconveniences based on emergency conditions. We all have to live with that.”

Dickey and Spaulding said public safety was a paramount consideration of their proposed guidelines. “The cumulative impact of fires, evacuations, and the projected development of the Sonoma Developmental Center are going to overwhelm our valley,” Dickey said. “Roadways can’t handle everything that follows what we do here tonight. We sought to identify as much as possible what we can do to reduce the possibility that someone loses their life from not enough road, water, or planning to evacuate the number of people here on an autumn day to celebrate a release. It’s not just about winery events, but how we live now.”

The rest of the commissioners supported recommending the revised guidelines to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors for approval.

At their June 3 hearing to accept public comments on the county-wide wine events ordinance, the commissioners sent the ordinance back to staff to revise the definition of events and to possibly harmonize the guidelines for the three specified areas of concentration. That decision followed hours of discussion similar to that of the SVCAC concerning the impact of wine-related events on residents of unincorporated Sonoma County.