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Draft winery event rules reach Planning Commissioners

Critical definitions and policies are being reviewed for adoption

By Jay Gamel

Discussion by the Sonoma County Planning Commission of a long-anticipated ordinance intended to guide county policy for coping with events associated with wineries was set to resume on July 15, the day the Kenwood Press is published. An earlier hearing developed issues and revealed some confusion between the proposed countywide ordinance, which will have the effect of law, and advisory guidelines developed by two of three areas identified as “areas of concentration.”

Events in the Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Westside Road rural areas have generated conflict between residents and wineries for years. Congestion from concentrated tasting rooms and associated events aimed at enticing customers to come see gorgeous landscapes and enjoy many opportunities to sample fine wine, food, and music, etc., has been a sore point since the early 2000s.

After their May 25 discussion of the proposed draft ordinance, planning commissioners asked staff to compare the different descriptions of wineries, events, and associated terms and interpretations. A table comparing each section of the draft county ordinance, with its advisory counterparts for the Dry Creek and Sonoma Valleys, will be the focus of the July 15 meeting.

At issue will be the definitions of what constitutes a winery, an event, and associated concepts, which will apply to the entire county. Dry Creek has developed and approved a set of advisory guidelines; Sonoma Valley is in the process of adopting advisory guidelines; and stakeholders in the Westside Road area have never been able to come to agreement.

Sonoma Valley’s advisory wine event guidelines surprised quite a few people in May when they were presented by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commissioners Margaret Spaulding and Matt Dickey, an ad hoc committee working with the ordinance. They recommended “substantial changes” to Permit Sonoma’s original draft of the advisory guidelines, as well as suggested some changes for the general county rules under consideration.

Suggested changes to the Sonoma Valley guidelines sought to further restrict frequency and size of events, implement greater communication with affected communities, and increase county oversight over winery operations, including visitors.

Significantly, the guidelines assert that the whole Sonoma Valley planning area is over-concentrated. The ad hoc report called for limiting to 12 the total number of events allowed per winery, while defining “event” as any gathering of 30 people or more. They called for no more than two wineries per half mile of roadway, and would increase the minimum parcel size for tasting rooms from 10 to 20 acres.

Events should be cancelled when a red flag warning is in effect for the winery area.

A comparison of the Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek, and county wine event rules, advisory or otherwise, can be seen online at sonomacounty. Local areas of concentration are defined and explained there, as well.

The Planning Commissioners will either recommend changes and refer the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors for consideration and possible adoption later this summer, or provide guidelines to planning staff for further development.