Sonoma County Board of Supervisors attempts rewrite over new rules for winery events

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night held off on voting on a proposed ordinance that would have rewritten the rules over the regulation of winery events as the industry raised objections that it would cause financial harm.

The county’s Planning Commission had approved the draft measure on a 5-0 vote in June in an effort to finally end a protracted eight-year debate between the wine industry and neighborhood activists.

However, the supervisors raised concerns about various provisions in the draft measure, which would apply to new and revised applications and not to the estimated 300 winery event and tasting room permits that already have been issued.

Instead, the board engaged in a major rewrite of the draft and directed county staff to come back with another revised proposal that it will debate for approval in 2023. The board voted 4-1 on that option with Supervisor Susan Gorin the lone vote against it.

Even with the delay on voting on a final proposal, board Chair James Gore said he felt “a need to get to resolution on this issue.”

The proposed draft would have settled a long-standing battle between the wine industry that contends it needs visitors to help grow their brands by selling directly to consumers and local residents who complain that the tourism influx brings unwanted traffic and noise and ruins the rural character. Under the current process, the Board of Zoning Adjustments make such determinations on a case-by-case basis and that has resulted in some contentious hearings in past years.

The proposed draft provided new rules over defining winery events such as festivals and concerts as opposed to agricultural events such as winemaker lunches. It placed standards over the size and hours of such events and rules over on-site parking, noise and food service. For example, wineries would have to notify neighbors at least 10 days in advance of such an event.

The supervisors on Tuesday afternoon began debate on the topic and undertook a significant rewriting of the proposed draft. They went item by item over major provisions of the draft, probing the potential effects of them. That included discussion over trying to define the scope of what is a catering kitchen versus a commercial kitchen. That was the similar path taken by the Planning Commission after hearing from stakeholder groups over the past year.

Trying to streamline the process, Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, suggested that the board focus on disallowing restaurants as part of the ordinance instead of going into minute details over what is not allowed in food preparation. The board agreed with the recommendation and instructed county staff to draft new language.

The board also favored county staff’s original recommendations for such terms as “winery events” and “agricultural promotion events” as opposed to those later put forth by the Planning Commission. Supervisors also pared down some of the standards in the proposed draft as well but kept such items for on-site parking, noise, traffic and food service.

During the debate, Gorin appeared to be the board member most in favor of strong action as she has heard of complaints from many of her Sonoma Valley constituents, especially over traffic along Highway 12 during weekends. She noted that in her first campaign the issue was central to her election 10 years ago.

“I heard from so many neighbors in Sonoma County (and) their fear about how many more wineries are enough in Sonoma Valley? And the impact that they're already experiencing from the wineries and the expanding activities and promotion events even back then. And now it's even worse,” Gorin said.

In contrast, Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma and southern portions of the county, was the wariest of putting on too many restrictions upon the industry. Some vintners argued during the public debate for the board to reject the ordinance or send it back to the Planning Commission.

“I think we really need to make sure that we understand that clear demarcation between what you would look at for land use versus what you would look at where you cross the line and tell someone how they operate their business,” Rabbit said.

The issue is mostly felt along certain high-impact areas, which also have their own community advisory councils that issue their own guidelines over what is permissible. Those areas are the Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Westside Road. Those local panels first consider event applications to head off potential problems early in the process before more formal hearings by county government for ultimate approval.

The eventual countywide ordinance will take precedence over those local guidelines when they are in conflict.

The Dry Creek Valley guideline is the only one that has gone into effect. The board on Tuesday morning heard on a proposed Sonoma Valley guideline to consider for its approval, but also held off a decision after complaints from vintners that they were not properly consulted on the draft.

Gorin was particularly perturbed by the delay. She complained the board’s decision was a message of “not honoring” the months spent by the Sonoma Valley council to develop the guidelines.

“And I think that's distressing to them and to me,” Gorin said.

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