Wine event/concentration ordinance out, guidelines possible by the end of the year
Resolution of long running feud between rural residents and back road wineries lurches forward
Now is not the time to do anything to hamper the wine and tourism industry’s ability to generate sales and sales tax revenues. This was the consensus of at least four of the county’s five supervisors who were asked by county planners to provide more direction on how to cope with the wine industry’s growth and impact on rural residents since first being permitted to host events and market their products on agricultural land in the county’s 1989 General Plan update.
In 2016, county supervisors tasked the Permit and Resource and Management Department (now Permit Sonoma) to come up with an ordinance and/or guidelines to help mitigate growing friction between rural residents and proliferating wineries and tasting rooms on the county’s often under-maintained and narrow back roads.
Fires, floods, more fires and now a pandemic repeatedly sidelined the process.
Three areas have generated the most friction: Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and Westside Road. All are at different stages of dealing with their issues.
Sonoma Valley has had a Citizens Advisory Commission (CAC) since 1993, which was charged with reviewing all kinds of development. New wineries and tasting rooms quickly rose to the top of the issue list, and the number of wineries countywide swelled to over 450 last year. Even so, Sonoma Valley’s guidelines, developed by a large stakeholder group of winery people and residents, are still in a draft stage and may require more modification.
Dry Creek’s CAC, on the other hand, was formed in 2012 and has had a set of guidelines working since 2018.
“Guidelines are very helpful,” Vicky Farrow said during public comment. Farrow is proprietor and CEO of Amista Vineyards near Healdsburg and a past member of the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Council. “We have been using our guidelines at the CAC successfully for the past two years and every council member, former and new, have commented on how helpful they are.” She said bike races and marathons have generated more complaints.
Westside Road residents and wineries have had less success in coming to agreement, with walkouts by both sides occurring over the past few years.
Georgia McDaniels, presenting Permit Sonoma’s progress to the Board, said staff preferred a combination of ordinance and flexible guidelines, but asked the Supervisors what they would prefer.
The Permit Sonoma presentation put wine industry economics at the top of the priority list.
Second and Third District Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane both rejected having new county laws in the form of a formal ordinance.
“I don’t have any over-concentrated areas in my district, or I might look at it differently,” Rabbitt said at the May 19 virtual meeting. “I want to live in a place where people want to visit.”
Zane echoed that sentiment. “I also don’t have [a wine impacted] area in my district.” While acknowledging some congestion in West County and Sonoma Valley areas, she emphasized that, “wine and wineries fuel our economy... I’m afraid those jobs are going to go away and not come back. Don’t put an obstacle in front of good businesses.”
And while supervisors Lynda Hopkins and James Gore both have their share of resident versus winery issues, they also prefer guidelines to ordinances.
Hopkins said that all kinds of events can become a problem and that maybe they should all be considered together. She referred to marathons and bike races that have closed many roads over sequential weekends during the summer and fall harvest seasons.
Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said his department has received only 14 complaints in the past three years. “Ten were validated and relatively minor,” he noted, praising local groups working with wineries for working out many problems.
Supervisor Susan Gorin was skeptical of the low number of complaints.
“People have given up complaining,” she said. “Every time law enforcement was called in for a complaint about noise, we were told ‘there is no noise ordinance,’” which effectively blocked enforcement.
Michael Hayney, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association (SCVA) and the SCVA Foundation, explicitly opposed either formal rules or guidelines for winery events and concentration.
“Now is not the time to handcuff our wineries further with guidelines or an ordinance that addresses an issue that the county itself has not received many formal complaints on, or that does not clearly identify what an allowed business activity is [for a given property].”
“If anything, the Board should be considering guidelines or an ordinance to regulate residential uses in agricultural-designated lands rather than guidelines to limit agricultural production,” Mike Martini, ex-mayor of Santa Rosa and general manager for Taft Street Winery said, after noting the county’s extensive agricultural heritage and “right to farm” ordinance.
Many citizen groups weighed in on the side of ordinances, including the Valley of the Moon Alliance, Wine & Water Watch, Greenbelt Alliance and more.
“Safety, parking, noise, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion are all made worse by the commercialization of neighborhoods that are on rural roads and two-lane highways near the 20,000 to 500,000 case wineries that are becoming the norm. Ag land is being commercialized,” wrote Deborah Preston for Wine & Water Watch. She noted that central California counties have abandoned this model in favor of moving the commercial side of the business, i.e., tasting rooms, into cities.
Several citizen groups warned that the wine industry is seeking to exempt most events by classifying them as regular wine activities. A 2016 presentation to the Board of Supervisors by the SCVA says, “Activities include winemaker lunches and dinners, release parties, trade tastings, food and wine educational pairings and are generally by invitation.”
Dominica Giovanni, interim policy and communications manager for Permit Sonoma, said the key takeaways were to rely on local area guidelines, with more general guidelines for the rest of the county, provide clear definitions distinguishing between a business-related activity and an event, take a hard look at amplified music and establish enforceable noise standards, consider addressing rules for all events that involve closing roads, and help establish a workable CAC for Westside Road residents and businesses.
Giovanni said staff would meet with industry groups and stakeholders to have some plans back to the Board by the end of the year.