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Planning Commission starts to write new rules for Sonoma County winery events

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday made progress in drafting new rules to fully regulate winery events, a yearslong debate that has pitted local neighborhood activists against the wine industry.

The panel revisited the same draft that it initially considered last June, but then delayed further action. This time, however, the commission began rewriting the draft in the virtual Zoom forum with the goal to ultimately pass the ordinance and send it to the Board of Supervisors.

They will continue the drafting at the next meeting.

The proposal would establish regulations for winery events, providing rules for such things as parking and traffic management, food service, coordination with neighbors and noise limits for those outside city limits.

It would apply only to new or modified permit applications.

The draft spells out such terms as “industrywide event” and “agricultural promotion events.” Those definitions would dictate the set of rules of governing the timing, food service and other activities of such events.

New members have joined the commission since last June, and they signaled a strong desire to move the issue along despite long-standing disagreements given that the Board of Supervisors first directed county staff to come up with a plan in October 2016. It has been kicked around since then without any formal action.

“The one thing I hope we won’t do is put this off for more stakeholder input,” said Commissioner Gregg Carr, who represents Sonoma Valley.

“I'll be the first to admit that after six to seven years of sitting in stakeholder meetings, industry seminars, neighborhood meetings and stuff that there is not ever going to be any reasonable consensus on the standards.”

The disputes have been centered over rural areas where there is a high concentration of wineries. Neighbors have complained about traffic and noise among wine tourists. In contrast, the wineries contend they need visitors because they are reliant more on direct-to-consumer sales as it is more difficult to get placement on retail shelves.

There are about 300 winery event and tasting room permits that have been issued in the county with more than half given from 2005-2015, according to county staff.

The issue is further complicated as two areas ― the Sonoma Valley and the Dry Creek Valley ― have their own community advisory councils and guidelines. They are designed to first consider event applications to address potential problems early in the process before formal hearings with county government. The Westside Road area does not have such a group.

The Sonoma Valley guidelines, for example, define a “winery event” as a gathering of 30 or more people at a pre-scheduled date and time. But some commissioners on Thursday said they did not want a specific number for guests in the countywide draft, and it was not included in the revision.

The commissioners also scrapped language detailing traditional business activities permitted by a winery. They instead will later spell out the specifics of what would be fall under the definition of an agricultural promotion event at their next hearing.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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