Sonoma County sets June 3 hearing on draft winery events ordinance

After more than five years of on-again, off-again work, Sonoma County has released draft rules that seek to resolve this delicate question for rural wineries and their neighbors: What events are allowed in rural agricultural areas — particularly in some of the county’s key winegrowing areas: Dry Creek, Sonoma and Russian River valleys — and which aren’t?

Wineries have been advocating for a modern approach to use permits that acknowledges the importance of trade and public visitation to the viability of the businesses. Neighbor and other groups have been calling for more specificity in the county code about activities at those rural properties that carry roadway and noise impacts.

Now, the draft Winery Events Ordinance, released in mid-May, is due for its first public hearing in front of the county Planning Commission on June 3, with a goal of having it to the Board of Supervisors in August.

Wine business advocates and local critics of rural winery projects generally have found a number of things to commend and some things to refine in the effort, first commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors in October 2016. Diversions of county planning staff time to deal with permits for rebuilding after the 2017 and 2019 wildfires were part of the reason for the delay.

“We're encouraged to see movement on this, because it's terribly important to have these definitions,” said Michael Haney, executive director of trade group Sonoma County Vintners. “It's encouraging to see how they're recognizing that wineries have the need for business activities, especially because of the dynamics of the market today and how it's changed in the past five years for wineries. It’s not the same as, for example, wanting to do a wedding at your winery.”

His organization four years ago publicly proposed a list of definitions and distinctions between “events” and “promotional activities,” as well as best practices for managing events to avoid problems with noise and traffic on narrow county backroads. As public concerns about rural winery projects started to rise, the county in 2015 formed a winery events working group, made up of stakeholders inside and outside the industry, was meeting to identify issues and propose policy solutions.

“We’ve been saying for years that events don’t need to be an arbitrary number (in the use permit),” Haney said. “They need to be based on the capacity limits of their winery, whether it’s septic, whether it’s parking, whatever it is."

What he’s hoping new regulations on winery projects don’t do is significantly increase the cost of the endeavors. Haney pointed to vintner David Ramey’s Westside Road project, the cost of which is said to have increased about $1 million because of conditions in the 2017 approval.

Also glad that the standards discussed in the working group are moving forward is Marc Bommersbach, part of the group Preserve Rural Sonoma County and a member of the board of Westside Community Association, which has been vocal about winery projects proposed on Westside Road along the Russian Rivery.

“We’re going to be proposing some changes and some tightening up, but we think it’s a positive thing,” he said.

Preserve Rural Sonoma County proposal for winery events ordinance changes (PDF)

Details of Preserve Rural Sonoma County proposed ordinance changes (PDF)

Headed in the right direction are specific standards such as a minimum 18-foot-wide roadway for fire truck access, traffic and noise management, and a minimum 20-acre parcel size, Bommersbach said. One aspect that needs to be clarified in the draft rules is whether events can be held on another parcel of a winery property.

Beyond the definitions of winery activities, the draft ordinance also talks about regional guidelines, pointing to those drafted a few years ago by the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Committee and localized provisions set to be developed this summer by the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Committee.

The county staff report on the ordinance noted that efforts to form a Westside Road committee have been unsuccessful. Bommersbach said that the Westside Community Association position is that such a committee isn’t needed.

“We don’t want one because the county is supposed to develop these standards, not the neighborhood,” Bommersbach said. “We can go with the ordinance for now and see what happens.”

The pressure for more oversight of winery projects on Westside Road was more acute several years ago, when seven proposals were under consideration at one time, but that’s not the case now, he said.

These are key definitions of winery events and activities from the draft ordinance:

  • Winery events are held at wineries and tasting rooms for the purpose of promoting and marketing agricultural products grown or processed in the county. They are secondary and incidental to agricultural production.
  • Agricultural promotional events are directly related to public education, sales and promotion of agricultural products to consumers, including winemaker lunches, dinners, release parties and wine club parties.
  • Industrywide events are promotional activities sponsored by a recognized wine industry association that may involve multiple wineries or tasting rooms. These events are held within a specified geographic area, during regular tasting room hours and may last up to three consecutive days.
  • Winery visitor serving activities are part of normal winery and tasting room business operations. There are two types of activities: sales and wine trade.
  • Sales activities are tasting, pickup parties, tours, seminars and other hospitality-related activities that promote sales.
  • Wine trade activities are by-invitation meetings, seminars, harvest parties and similar activities attended only by trade partners and are not advertised to consumers.

Here are some of the ordinance’s proposals for setbacks to limit the travel of sound to a neighboring property:

  • Parking lots: 450 feet
  • Outdoor areas with groups or acoustic music: 625 feet
  • Outdoor areas with amplified or loud acoustic instruments like horns or drums: 1,600 feet

Written comments to the Planning Commission on the draft ordinance are due to be submitted Friday, May 28.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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