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Planning commission finishes new rules for Sonoma County winery events

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a draft ordinance that would rewrite new rules over the regulation of winery events in an attempt to find balance between neighborhood activists and the wine industry in a debate that has lingered for almost a decade.

The commissioners voted 5-0 to send the proposed rules to the Board of Supervisors, which is slated to consider the new regulations in September as a compromise between rural residents who have complained about traffic and noise from wine tourists and the local industry that contends it needs new visitors to help spur sales.

The proposal would only apply to new applications and not to the estimated 300 winery event and tasting room permits that have already been issued in the county, which has been a big spike in applications since 2005.

The panel grappled over trying to define certain terms, most notably what would be considered as “agricultural promotion events,” which would be viewed more favorably by Permit Sonoma staff as opposed to other events like rock concerts.

Commissioner Pat Gilardi spoke out on how the definition should not include such events as weddings and campaign fundraisers that are not central to winemaking.

“Nobody is going to a wedding because of the wine. It’s because it’s their niece or nephew or best friend,” Gilardi said.

Commissioner Eric Koenigshofer said he worried about getting away from the true purposes of agricultural production and turning a winery into a more profitable events center.

“The risk here is we drift over by mission creep to more commercialization, ignoring the secondary and incidental policy that diminishes the (agricultural) aspect and expands the event revenue stream to the point where the revenue stream from events overtakes the ag value,” said Koenigshofer, who represents west county.

The panel agreed to a definition of “agricultural promotion events” where the primary purpose is directly for public education, sales, promotion and marketing of products grown or processed in the local area. County staff also may consider each site’s operational capacity; the comparative economic returns for the event and its infrastructure in such decisions.

The commission opted not to put a crowd threshold under a definition for what would be considered a “winery event” nor did it agree to a minimum parcel size, providing more flexibility for the county staff to make such decisions at the application level. The panel did adopt a definition for special “industrywide events” that may involve many wineries and last up to three days.

The commissioners also reworked the definition over what would be considered a “private event,” which would come under greater scrutiny. The panel instead used the permitting guidelines already in place under the county code for special events that roughly allow for two such events annually.

The proposal aligns with the Sonoma Valley and the Dry Creek Valley areas that have their own community advisory councils and guidelines in place. Those areas have a panel of local residents that first consider event applications to address potential problems early in the process before more formal hearings with county government. The other impacted region, in the Westside Road area, does not have such a policy.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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