Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approves winery event regulations
A divided Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has approved a new set of regulations governing winery events, finalizing a disputed and nearly decadelong effort to establish clear rules for the region’s multibillion-dollar wine industry.
The board’s 3-2 vote Tuesday established new definitions and standards for winery events, outlining requirements for parking, noise, hours of operation and more.
Events would include such things as winemaker meals, wine-club and release parties and other promotion gatherings that can draw big crowds to Wine County venues outside of normal business.
Until now, the county has had no rules specifically governing those activities, which have riled rural neighbors and allies who began seeking limits on events as far back as 2014.
Still, about two-thirds of the county’s more than 460 permitted wineries and tasting rooms authorized to hold events won’t be subject to the new rules, unless they seek changes.
In addition, new winery and tasting room projects outside city limits will fall under the new rules.
Wine industry representatives and the board majority favored a final set of rules that they viewed as less intrusive on day-to-day business.
“At the end of the day I believe in what we just did and I think it is a strong step forward,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “We have a common set of values here. The industry wants to do the right thing and hold those folks that are being bad neighbors accountable.”
Supervisors David Rabbitt and James Gore joined Hopkins in voting for the ordinance.
Critics, including some neighbors and two board members, indicated they thought the new rules didn’t go far enough.
Following the vote, Supervisor Susan Gorin called the ordinance’s passage “more of the same, sadly.”
The new regulations are set to take effect in 30 days. The county’s Planning Commission is charged with reviewing any new or revised applications that relate to the new rules.
The county oversees 464 permits for wineries, and of those, 307 are authorized for events and tasting rooms, according to a staff report. They will not fall under the new rules unless and until they seek permit changes.
Supervisor Chris Coursey, the board chair, joined Gorin in voting against the staff-recommended ordinance, which incorporated significant revisions to a package passed last year by the Planning Commission.
Gorin was opposed to those rewrites last year.
“I see this as status quo,” said Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley, one of the county’s premier wine regions.
“It has not moved the needle forward,” she added. “We are going to be back where we were years ago — neighborhood groups opposing every winery application and attorneys getting involved.”
The board spent much of Tuesday’s three-hour hearing wrestling with nuanced questions.
How to differentiate between a restaurant operation and a secondary food service marketing the industry, like a wine and food pairing?
How to distinguish between an event and activity taking place as part of typical business operations?
The board ultimately voted to accept staff recommendations but with two amendments. The first banned certain activities like meetings, seminars and employee harvest parties from having outdoor amplified sound after 5 p.m.
The second defined winery events as those taking place outside regular business hours and exceeding regular site capacity.
Rural residents have sought tighter limits on wineries and tasting rooms to mitigate impacts on traffic, safety, water use and other issues tied to the industry.
On Tuesday, many residents renewed those calls. They urged the board to create more clear, enforceable definitions related to food service and events, to create minimum site size requirements to help address noise and to set a density standard to prevent over-concentration of wineries in neighborhoods, among other proposals.
Gorin had wanted road-width requirements incorporated in the final package, which they were not.
“Given the county’s long history of limited enforcement, ambiguity in this ordinance is an invitation for abuse,” said Padi Selwyn, a longtime local activist who introduced herself Tuesday as a member of Sonoma County Tomorrow, a nonprofit focused on land use and sustainability issues.
Representatives of the wine industry, however, say their business is increasingly dependent on direct sales to consumers, and that they need the flexibility to hold events to draw those customers.
Several industry members and vintners who spoke Tuesday stressed the importance of that direct marketing. A few suggested the board clarify definitions in the set of rules but most backed the recommendations.
“I feel we need to stay generalized,” said Tom Blackwood a board member of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance. “Avoid getting into the weeds. Let the Planning Commission make those judgment calls.”
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MurphReports.