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Rules for winery events shaping up … slowly

Rules for winery events shaping up … slowly
A vineyard in Sonoma Valley. The Sonoma County Planning Commission tried to grapple with regulations for events at wineries at its May 19 meeting.Photo by Paul Goguen


By Chris Rooney

In a classic case of two steps forward and one step back, the Sonoma County Planning Commission tried to grapple with regulations for events at wineries at its May 19 meeting. The commissioners will reconvene on this topic at a future date, with the goal of passing along recommendations to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 27.

Much like the topic of vacation rentals, the root of the debate is between those utilizing property to turn a profit versus neighbors who have to deal with the noise and traffic.

The commissioners were revisiting proposed regulations initially introduced last June, and again in February, trying to balance the concerns of rural neighbors who have complained about impacts with the local industry that relies financially on visitors.

The rules would apply only to new and modified applications.

The discussion devolved into esoteric and philosophical topics rather than the nuts and bolts of a regulation. For instance, there was a debate as to whether any event at a winery could be considered an “agricultural promotion event” simply because it took place at a winery. Was that enough to be considered promoting local agriculture, or did the event need to rely on the sale of products (wine, cheese, etc.) to be considered a benefit to the local ag industry?

“Nobody knows what it is,” said commission chair Greg Carr of the definition of agricultural promotion events, adding that they must clearly define it for those applying for permits.

Fellow commissioner Shaun McCaffery agreed, saying, “We don’t want any weird stuff going on out there.”

One basic concept kept the commissioners on the same page — that whatever new definitions and regulations are put in place for winery events work in compliance with the Sonoma County General Plan.

However, in a particularly disjointed debate, the commissioners discussed how wineries hosting yoga or landscape painting events factor into the equation. Despite the fact that tasting rooms around the county set their own hours of operation, there was discussion of regulating them. The meeting ran more

than five hours.

During the February meeting on the same topic, planning commissioner Eric Koenigshofer said, “We’re having the same discussion that we’ve been having for 15 years.” It’s now closer to 16.

One attendee of the Zoom forum pointed out that “there are already use permit guidelines” in place, and others asked if new guidelines would be in conflict with the agricultural element of the county’s General Plan.

There is continued debate as to howmanypeopleshouldbeallowed at events hosted at wineries, what level of food preparation should be allowed, and what events are considered industry-promotional.

Also debated was whether or not a winery’s size — in acreage — should limit its ability to host events.

According to county staff, there have been 60 use permits allowed since 2016, 39 of which entail serving visitors. There are 33 permits currently in the pipeline, awaiting approval. County staff also noted that about 10 percent of all use permits are wine-related.