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Sonoma County supervisors revisit guidelines for wineries in tourist hotspots amid pandemic

As Sonoma County inches closer to establishing concrete guidelines for wineries in key tourism hot spots, county supervisors this past week questioned some of the definitions that regulators would use to ultimately limit the type and number of events at popular Wine Country destinations.

The issue isn’t just one of semantics, as it could affect a widening array of side businesses - from weddings and winemaker dinners to industrywide tastings - that wineries increasingly rely on to pitch their product and make their bottom line.

Supervisors on Tuesday were asked to review a spreadsheet offering definitions for winery events and winery activities that could eventually be applied to three areas where tasting rooms are highly concentrated: Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and Sonoma Valley.

The topic has been a political maelstrom for the Board of Supervisors and planning officials, who more than four years ago sought to address public uproar over the expanding footprint of wineries and their events. But even an ostensibly simple delineation - between activities that are permitted outright and events that are subject to limits - has proved fraught and elusive.

“I think it’s about damn time that we have a definition that makes sense, and that we stick our necks out there and say, ‘This is an activity and this is an event,’?” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district stretches along Westside Road.

While the new chart presented on Tuesday attempted to simplify the distinction, supervisors still had fundamental concerns, demonstrating the nature of a vexing dilemma that has stumped county officials for years.

The conflict has roots at least as far back as 1989, when so-called “agriculture promotional activities” were first allowed in the county’s unincorporated area, giving wineries with tasting rooms - there are now about 300 ?outside of city limits - a clearer path to expand into the special events and gatherings that have grown their customer base.

But the crush of visitor traffic, noise from live music and other impacts have become a flashpoint, as neighbors and winery owners in the three key areas and elsewhere have clashed over their different visions of how to preserve and promote the county’s rural character.

Tuesday’s discussion marked the Board of Supervisors’ first formal return to the topic in nearly four years. It laid bare many of the key points of contention that have hamstrung attempts to enact guidelines for wineries or stronger measures known as ordinances.

Supervisors and others asked:

Does the county’s bedrock right-to-farm ordinance preclude any restrictions on marketing activities for wineries?

With just 14 complaints lodged in the past three years, is there a problem left to solve?

And given the devastating fallout from the coronavirus crisis on the county’s signature industry, should county officials seek to further constrain its business?

“We have to support the industry that supports us,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent. “They’re hurting right now. … A right to farm also means a right to market your product. What you grow you get to absolutely market.”

Supervisors were asked to provide feedback on the criteria, as well as guide county staff on whether officials should pursue an ordinance with hard and fast rules, or a more flexible approach: local guidelines in each of the three concentrated areas.

“This is really a time for us to hear from the board before we launch into our next level of community engagement,” said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county’s lead land use and planning agency.

Supervisors generally preferred to proceed with drafting guidance, and they mostly agreed on one way to define events: Gatherings for which wineries and tasting rooms didn’t have enough on-site parking.

But other distinctions didn’t appear to sit well with a majority of board members. Supervisor James Gore singled out a criterion that would classify any gathering outside of normal business hours as an event - with all the entailing noise monitoring and traffic mitigations.

Gore, who represents the north county, including much of the Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road areas, balked at the Monday-?through-Friday parameters.

“The core business for wineries is weekends,” Gore said. “That’s when it’s expected.”

Hopkins agreed.

“I believe agriculture is a ?seven-day-a-week business,” she said.

The staff proposal also called out amplified sound as an almost automatic qualifier for “event” status, except in the case of wine release parties within weekday business hours for which there’s enough parking. Hopkins said classifying any gathering with amplified sound as a common activity didn’t make sense.

“What does amplified sound have to do with agriculture promotion?” she said.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley, has previously urged the wine industry to do more to assure neighbors’ quality of life, in the wake of traffic studies released last fall that called for more strict rules for the most popular weekend gatherings.

But the board chair on Tuesday was largely silent on the proposed definitions for those gatherings, saying she preferred to see the discussion continued among smaller ?stakeholder groups.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he wasn’t worried about amplified sound, and instead focused his attention on the need to support existing businesses.

“Once a permit is granted, everything should be done to make sure they’re as successful as possible,” Rabbitt said. “We need to continue to make sure we are there for our businesses.”

Zane struck a similar tone, pointing to the deepening economic impacts from the pandemic, which has seen the county’s agriculture sector, primarily wineries, shed 5,000 jobs in April as countywide unemployment shot to 15.2%.

“I don’t want to put out a ‘You’re not welcome’ sign,’?” Zane said. “I want to be able to welcome visitors. I want to have reasonable boundaries around these events, but I want to be careful that we don’t hurt the industry that fuels so many jobs in this county.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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