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Sonoma County cracks down on Bella Vineyards

John Duddy serves wine in the caves at Bella Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley during the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting in this March 2014 file photo. (JOHN BURGESS/Press Democrat)

ANGELA HART, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Bella Vineyards is situated at the end of West Dry Creek Road, a narrow, winding county byway that curves along remote hillsides north of Healdsburg. The winery is famous for its robust zinfandels and romantic wine cave dinners, its accolades detailed in wine industry magazines and on review sites such as Yelp.

“What really makes Bella is the setting and the events produced here,” one reviewer wrote. “Tastings are conducted inside the barrel cellars, within giant caves dug out of the hillsides,” wrote another.

Sonoma County officials, however, are alleging that owners Lynn and Scott Adams have been running their winery outside of county rules for more than a decade. In response, planning commissioners voted unanimously last week to halt all wine-related events at Bella Vineyards and to cease public tastings in its popular wine cave.

At a rare public hearing Thursday for the Board of Zoning Adjustments, planners with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department listed a procession of alleged permit infringements — most notably, big parties like a rosé release event, a harvest party and late-night dinners. Following the four-hour hearing, planning commissioners voted 5-0 to scale back the winery’s use permit, rescinding permission to participate in events altogether.

The new rules revoke any previous rights to participate in industry-wide attractions such as barrel tastings or events like the popular Wine Country Weekend or Wine & Food Affair. The wine cave is restricted to storage only, though public tastings in the primary tasting room are allowed. The decision, reached by straw vote, requires a final vote scheduled for Nov. 20.

“This is the first time I’ve restricted what wineries are allowed to do,” said Jason Liles, a planning commissioner representing the 4th District, appointed by Supervisor Mike McGuire. “But it’s my feeling, after looking at all the information, that the county and Bella have not been on the same page.”

Planning officials said the Board of Supervisors specifically forbid special events when Bella obtained its use permit in 2000. Lawyers representing the winery disputed the county’s findings, arguing that its use permit allows for events and other activities that promote Bella’s wines.

Bella co-owner Lynn Adams, who was present at Thursday’s hearing, declined to comment, but Bella representatives said the winery owners would continue talking with county planning officials to find a solution and preserve their business.

“We’ve been working with the county for a while to try and get all this worked out,” said David Majerus, Bella’s general manager. “I don’t really appreciate the way things have been done at the county, but we’re going to continue to work with them to find a compromise that the neighbors and Bella are happy with.”

Officials recalled only one other time in Sonoma County’s history when such strict action was taken against a winery. The use permit for Rabbit Ridge Winery — the rogue operation that moved production to Paso Robles after a 2001 battle over permitted buildings — was revoked, Chief Deputy County Counsel David Hurst said.

Scrutiny over the type and size of events allowed at wineries has mounted in recent years, as the number of winery owners seeking use permits allowing events has skyrocketed amid growing demand for event space in popular wine regions.

Supervisors in 2000 granted Bella Vineyards approval to open for public wine tasting with no special events, according to the use permit. While the definition of what constitutes a special event has evolved with the region’s popularity since 2000, former planning director Pete Parkinson two years ago warned Bella that the county could revoke its permit if it did not stop holding events.

“Our office has received a complaint that events were being hosted at Bella Winery without permits,” Parkinson wrote in an April 2012 email to the winery’s lawyer. “Holding these events will constitute a violation of the use permit conditions and will subject your client to enforcement action up to and including modification or revocation of the use permit.”

At the time, Bella was allowed to participate in wine industry events. Since then, however, the winery has continued to hold larger events, advertising them as “happenings” and “gatherings.”

County Planning Director Tennis Wick, who initiated enforcement action against Bella, said well-documented evidence of Bella hosting non-permitted events gave the county grounds to prohibit future events altogether.

“My observation over the last six months is that conventional enforcement action has not worked,” Wick said. “We need to assess the impacts on the community.”

In addition to hosting multiple events, a report compiled by county staff alleged that Bella Vineyards’ owners constructed their 6,700-square-foot wine cave without required permits, illegally converted part of the cave into a private dining room and expanded their operations to the point that events have increased public safety threats in the neighborhood. Hundreds of complaints have been filed with the county over the last decade about Bella and neighboring wineries; dozens of opposition letters submitted. Most said they were primarily concerned with the narrow, crumbling road leading to Bella where West Dry Creek Road dead-ends.

“This to me has nothing to do with the owners’ integrity or past abuses,” said Charlee Schanzer, who lives about a mile from the winery. “The problem is the road.”

Schanzer said on industry-wide event days, traffic is particularly bad.

“On Saturday, March 5, 2011, 1,528 cars passed my driveway,” Schanzer said. “That’s the population of Geyserville.”

With increasing demand for events in bucolic vineyard settings, neighborhood groups and others are pushing officials to crack down on wineries operating outside what their permits allow. Critics also want the county to reassess winery permits, placing a heavier weight on characteristics like size and conditions of roads, as well as environmental factors such as water availability and noise. Wine industry groups, too, have been asking for clearer definitions for types of events currently permitted.

At present, use permits are granted largely on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, applications are approved swiftly without neighborhood opposition. Other times, they’re delayed in lengthy, expensive appeals. Recently, however, the county has unofficially begun to address widespread confusion among winery owners about how events are defined and regulated. Detailed rules, such as prohibition of weddings, review of the permit after two years and restriction of amplified noise, are often written into the permit itself.

Bella’s lawyers said that ambiguity — about the technical definition of an event — has caused confusion about the type of activities that are permitted.

“Staff has relied on some definition of special events that we have never been able to accurately pinpoint,” said Bill Carle III, referencing a 150-page staff report detailing findings for Bella’s permit hearing. “That’s not surprising because even today the county doesn’t have that policy, and certainly it did not in 2000.”

Lawyers also pointed to a letter submitted by former 4th District Supervisor Paul Kelley in response to types of events permitted.

“It was always clearly understood that the routine marketing activities of a winery included the participation in industrywide events, wine club activities like wine pick-ups and winemaker dinners where the attendance would be of a reasonable number of people,” Kelley wrote.

Officials said, however, the warning letter emailed to Bella Vineyards from the former planning director in 2012 made it clear that special events after that point were not permitted.

“I’ve spent four years on this trying to find a compromise,” Liles said before recommending a straw vote at Thursday’s meeting. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked for me or Supervisor McGuire. There’s been 30 different levels of communication over the last 12 years. It’s gone too far; it has to stop.”

McGuire said in a separate phone interview that wineries operating outside their defined permit should face penalties.

“The vast majority of all wineries follow the rules and are good neighbors,” McGuire said. “But there are some that make up their own rules, and for those individual cases, there should be consequences.”

Wick, the planning director, said he recommended that Bella come back after the Nov. 20 zoning board hearing and reapply for events or wine dinners, then planning officials would be able to accurately measure potential impacts to the environment, roads and the neighborhood. Carle said he hadn’t determined whether he’d appeal the zoning board’s decision to the full Board of Supervisors.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Carle said. “This is merely the start.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.