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.

The PRMD report noted that 'in accordance with General Plan policies, all event activities in agricultural and resource areas must promote local agricultural products and be secondary and incidental to local production.' That has proven to be a key bone of contention between wineries – especially smaller wineries, which see their one-to-one customer outreach as essential to their business – and neighborhoods, which wonder what music performance, film festivals or yoga classes have to do with agriculture.

There are at present some 690 winery permits in the county, 447 of which are currently in use – with another 60 or so in process. Several speakers noted that an individual small winery permit which allows for a tasting room with 24 events per year, for example, quickly balloons into a major problem when many such small events are focused in a relatively concentrated area.

Strangely, industry-wide events – such as regional or appellation-specific barrel tasting weekends, Sonoma Valley Crush or Wine Road events – are largely immune from permit control, as even wine-making facilities with no tasting room or event permits can participate. Gorin was among those who called for another look at that exclusion.

The rural character of both agricultural zones and rural residential was often held up as a positive value, and events or facilities that violated that character – however it was defined – were disparaged. Several asked simply that amplified music be banned altogether, or permitted only on estates large enough that the noise did not impact any residents in the neighborhood.

Another common thread was a plea for more clarity in definitions – that applicants and enforcers should know what constitutes a tasting room, what size of parcel qualifies as a winery, how many people constitutes an event, and the like.

Finally the issue of enforcement was once again broached, that violations of permits were seldom penalized and even if a few 'bad apples' were responsible, getting them to stop was largely unenforceable – especially with unclear definitions and limited weekend staff.

Overall the reading of the supervisors was that they were educated on the scope of the problem, even those like David Rabbitt who has only a handful of tasting rooms in his second district. It seemed that the board would likely act to control winery events at some later date, once presented with a matrix of possible ordinance or practical solutions they could agree upon.

PRMD was asked to present these to the board by the end of September, though final board action is not expected until the first half of 2017.

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