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Planning commission works on new rules for Sonoma County winery events

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Thursday made some progress to finish new rules to regulate winery events that have triggered disputes between neighborhood activists and the wine industry over past years.

The panel revisited the draft that it initially considered last June, and again in February, in its quest to find a balance between rural neighbors who have complained about traffic and noise among wine tourists, against the local industry that contends the need for visitors.

But after five hours of debate, commissioners said they realized they had more work to do and would reconvene June 7 in attempt to finish the proposal. The Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the proposal on Sept. 27.

The rules would apply to only new and modified event applications. There are more than 460 winery permits in Sonoma County and roughly 60% have visitor components, such as tasting rooms, according to county staff.

The commissioners grappled with lingering thorny questions, most significantly over what exactly falls under a winery event as opposed to traditional business activities for a wine tasting?

The members wrestled over trying to set a definition of an “agricultural promotion event” that would be viewed more favorably as opposed to events like concerts. Those definitions would dictate the regulations on the timing on an event, the food service to be offered and other activities.

The five-hour debate at times veered over whether yoga outings and painting classes at wineries should fall under greater scrutiny as the local industry has lobbied against tight regulations.

Commissioner Shaun McCaffery noted “virtually everything” that happens at a winery or a vineyard could conceivably be argued as an agriculture promotional event, but he said rules for the road could be helpful so that wineries would not abuse the process.

“Ag promotional events are what we are after because that’s what this land is zoned for,” said McCaffery, who represents the grape growing regions of Alexander, Knights and Dry Creek valleys. “We don’t want weird stuff going on out there.”

The panel’s working draft has “agricultural promotion events” defined as events directly related to public education, sales and promotion of agricultural products to consumers that aligns with the county’s general plan.

The panel did make some progress under standards for the new policy in relation to topics such as traffic management, food service and noise setbacks, where it would tentatively require specific noise studies for compliance of large gatherings.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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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