Winery-event crisis gives Sonoma County supervisors an earful
A lengthy study session on the explosion of winery events in Sonoma County last week led the Board of Supervisor to agree that something must be done - but just how to shape regulations and enforcement proved elusive. The four supervisors in attendance heard from the county's Permit and Resource Management Department and a selection of groups and individuals concerned about the problems of traffic, noise, non-agricultural use and other problems that 447 wineries have brought to rural areas of the county.
The litany of concerns is a familiar one to Sonoma Valley residents who are either in the business of wineries or neighbors to such: over-concentration of events in specific neighborhoods, coupled with the cumulative effect of multiple small event permits; lack of clarity in definitions for what is a tasting room, what constitutes and event, etc.; preserving the 'rural character' of Sonoma's agricultural and rural residential zones; and – perhaps the most difficult – enforcement of the already existing code limitations.
But at the end of almost six hours, the Board took no formal action, though they did request more information on possible directions the county could take. They also tacitly acknowledged that the resolution of the issue would probably be delayed until 2017, derailed in part by what a former supervisorial candidate called the 'green train' of marijuana regulation.
'There's a train a-coming, it's a green train, and it's not SMART,' said Keith Rhinehart, the final speaker in the July 12 Board of Supervisors meeting. A county process to evaluate marijuana regulation began Monday in Sonoma with the first of five town halls to discuss the marijuana industry as it relates to agriculture and the environment, human services, taxation and revenue, and enforcement - similar issues to the winery industry.
PRMD responded that while they did have a 10 percent reduction in staff due to retirement at the end of June, they are capable of making 'an extensive staff effort' to develop marijuana regulation while continuing to work on winery event regulations. They are currently working on traffic and noise studies in areas of over-concentration, said Tennis Wick, director of PMRD, though study in the complex Sonoma Valley area has yet to begin.
The staff report on winery events was based in part on a six-month 'winery events working group' that PRMD directed in 2015, and a public hearing in November with close to 500 people in attendance. While the issues appeared most familiar to supervisors Susan Gorin and James Gore, whose first district and fourth district (respectively) are hot spots in the winery events controversy, the other supervisors were attentive to the concerns that both industry and neighborhoods face.
Speaking for the winemaking and vineyard industry was Jean Arnold Sessions, the new executive director of Sonoma County Vintners. Their main objective, Sessions stated, is preserving Sonoma County's agricultural economy over the long-term. She cited figures that wine-related tourism generates $1.25 billion in Sonoma County each year, with an additional $13.4 billion in economic impacts.
Even Sessions tacitly acknowledged there were issues around winery events, especially in certain areas of over-concentration, though she shied from suggesting a reduction of event permitting. She asked instead for a county-level Oversight and Complaint Manager to handle issues, rather than codification of rules.
'Each property is unique, one size doesn't fit all,' said Sessions. She also noted that more than just winery events lead to problems, including bike races, marathons and other similar events.
Several community speakers asked for clear and measurable standards for events, tasting rooms, noise and parking setbacks, and other traffic issues. Those were topics that appeared again and again throughout the afternoon, though all seemed to be secondary to the largest concern, that of over-concentration of winery events in specific areas.
Kathy Pons, of the Valley of the Moon Alliance, gave her presentation as colleagues unfurled a 20-foot long aerial map of the Kenwood corridor with wineries, tasting rooms and other event-related locations spotlighted. This northern end of the Sonoma Valley is one of the areas of over-concentration of winery events, and Pons has been involved for about a dozen years in advocating for more regulation over the industry's expansion in the Valley, and elsewhere in the county.
Other areas of concern for over-concentration of events include the Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road in Supervisor Gore's district, and the Carneros area, like the Sonoma Valley, in Supervisor Gorin's district.