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Winery rules head to supervisors

Planners finalize regulations for events

By Chris Rooney

Permit Sonoma Deputy Director Scott Orr didn’t mince words when addressing the Sonoma County Planning Commission during its June 7 session on a long-debated proposed winery event ordinance. “What got us here is that people are angry.”

One reason for the discord, said Commissioner Pat Gilardi, is that wineries are “shifting to event centers.”

While wineries have, for years, been coveted locations for weddings and fundraisers, the industry has become more reliant on such hosting events as wildfires, the drought, and economic downturns have hampered wine sales. However, the increase in traffic and noise associated with events has frustrated some winery neighbors. The end result is a balancing act of sorts for the Planning Commission, which sought to appease both sides of the debate — an endeavor that has taken about a decade.

By the end of the five-hour session, the commissioners found common ground and voted unanimously to pass along the proposed ordinance to the county Board of Supervisors, which is expected to take up the matter in September.

Along the way, there were philosophical debates as to what should be considered “agricultural promotion,” how many attendees constitutes an event, and how many acres a winery property should encompass to host events.

Commissioner Greg Carr observed the commission was “going in circles.” He and fellow commissioner Eric Koenighofer felt the sanctity of agricultural land needed to be protected from events that did not directly benefit the ag industry.

Koenighofer said businesses were so eager to make a buck that they’d “turn their garage into a bar.”

They lobbied to provide deferential treatment to ag-related events over such things as concerts. If the commission deemed all events ag-related simply because they took place on ag lands, Gilardi said, “[We’d] open a Pandora’s box.”

The new proposed ordinance only applies to new applications and not to the estimated 300 winery event and tasting-room permits that have already been issued in the county.

The commissioners ultimately agreed to define “agricultural promotion events” as instances where the primary purpose is directly for public education, sales, and promotion of agriculture.

Hiccups delayed action, as the commissioners sometimes weighed whether wineries should be able to warehouse wine produced elsewhere (but from the same parent company). There were similar debates about the number of event attendees, hours of operation, and parcel sizes.

Confusing matters further, three (of five) supervisorial districts have differing takes on the definitions. The proposed ordinance mostly shares ideals from the Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley areas.

The commission didn’t specify a crowd threshold or a minimum property size, supposedly giving county staff more leeway in reviewing permit applications. The commission also looked at how many special events could take place (two a year) outside general events.

The commission took aim at fires, too. Gilardi said, “There’s no reason for outdoor fires.” It was decided that solid fuels like wood and charcoal would be nixed entirely and that gas firepits should be less than three feet in diameter.

More information about the draft winery event ordinance is at https://permitsonoma. org/regulationsandinitiatives/wineryevents.