Wine event, concentration ordinance looming
Possible regulatory responses to growing public concern over the proliferation and timing of winery events and tasting rooms were presented to a second public workshop held before the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC), although to an unexpectedly low number of attendees. Just 30 people showed up at the Sonoma Memorial Veterans Building, picked to accommodate an expected much larger crowd, like the one that showed up at a Santa Rosa presentation last November.
Jennifer Barrett, the deputy director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), made the presentation, along with planners Traci Tesconi and Dean Parsons. They expect to bring a set of options before the county Planning Commission sometime this spring or summer, and have a final ordinance ready for the Board of Supervisors by fall.
Since Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley have been designated high priority areas, the lack of local vintners and growers at the meeting was significant. They were most likely attending the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, the largest industry trade show in America.
The SVCAC presentation was an opportunity to allow public input, rather than to solicit responses from the Commissioners.
Richard Idell, a board member of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, was not pleased with the timing of the workshop or with SVCAC outgoing chairman Jack Ding who refused to allow him a lot of extra time to address the county suggestions. Although Idell said he had no notice that the workshop was being held until this week, SVVGA Executive Director Maureen Cottingham was one of the 21-member working group that formulated the policy options presented at the meeting.
At issue is whether the county should formulate more focused policies regarding events and tasting rooms on agricultural property in Sonoma County. The rapidly expanding number of wineries in the Sonoma Valley and along Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg have prompted a growing number of complaints about traffic, noise and loss of “rural character.”
The wine industry is the county’s largest economic sector on two fronts: crop production and tourism. Grapes generate nearly $600 million in sales, and wine-related tourism revenues is a whopping $1.2 billion. The combined $1.8 billion economic footprint makes curbing industry appetites a considerably sticky undertaking.
Questions have been raised by local groups, such as the Valley of the Moon Alliance and the Dry Creek Valley Association, about increasing commercialization of agricultural zoned land, and whether events like weddings are “agriculturally related” as required by the county’s General Plan.
Starting with the assumption that wineries need to have direct interaction with customers to successfully market their products, the winery group proposals are structured to balance winery related tourism against its impacts, protect the “rural character” of the county, develop standards for promotional activities and events on ag land, and look at areas of local concentration, such as Sonoma Valley, and Dry Creek Valley and West Side Road.
These ideas are embodied in the county’s General Plan Policy AR-6g: “Define in Development Code compatible visitor serving uses such as promotional events which support and are incidental to local ag production, and define their permissible sizes and intensities.”
Possible restrictions include linking event size to property size, restricting hours, providing a clear definition of what constitutes permissible events, and evaluating cumulative impacts, something the county has been unable or reluctant to do in the past.
Quoting Aristotle’s famous homily, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” the working group agreed that, added together, concentrations of winery events can have significant impacts on other residents, and that cumulative impacts are not addressed in current use permit deliberations.
The county has experienced nearly double the winery growth expected by the General Plan adopted in 2008. As of 2014, the latest date for reliable figures, there were 439 wineries, with 222 featuring tasting rooms and 56 allowing tasting by appointment only.
As wineries have proliferated, so too have events. The policy options being considered include permitting wine club dinners, release parties, and the like, but limiting private events like weddings, fundraisers, and charitable events. There could be industry trade events, but a cap could be put on industry-wide events, which are currently exempt from being counted toward permitted events. Industry-wide events currently include those sponsored by small groups of wineries.
Napa County found a pattern of non-compliance with use permit requirements following a rigorous audit of some of its wineries. Barrett said that Sonoma would not be likely to follow a similar path, but rather rely on self-enforcement and a series of permit reviews with tasting room staff to better understand what they mean. Sonoma code enforcement is complaint driven and subject to severe staffing constraints, Barrett said.
“You need to allow us to be flexible,” Dean Bordigioni, owner of Annadel Estate Winery, said. He relies on weddings to make ends meet, hosting an average of 10 a year to boost income from his grapes and cut flower production just opposite Oakmont. Although he bought the winery eight years ago, he points to the property’s long association with farming and grape production, reaching back to the 1880s.
Bordigioni and Beltane Ranch owner Alexa Wood suggested that if small family wineries such as theirs can’t be supported by a variety of enterprises, they would eventually become housing or other, less welcome, developments.
The policy option presentation is available at the county’s winery event website, sonoma-county.org/WineryEvents, and you can send questions and letters via email to PRMD-WineryEvents@sonoma-county.org. The presentation includes maps of the concentration areas in the Sonoma Valley and around Healdsburg that have motivated residents to seek relief.