Sonoma County Vintners unveils community outreach plan

The initiative by the trade group will feature a best practices manual and a new hire to work with activists to help resolve traffic and noise issues.|

The Sonoma County Vintners trade group, looking to diffuse the pitched debate over the scope and impact of winery events, has a new plan it hopes will help wineries prevent complaints from neighbors and the surrounding community.

The new initiative will codify best practices for its members and hire someone specifically to conduct outreach to businesses and community leaders.

The announcement reflects the realization that the industry needs to be more proactive in response to community activists, who have complained that an influx of winery events has brought traffic and noise that have hampered their quality of life, said Jean Arnold-Sessions, executive director for the vintners, which has more than 250 wine business members. The county has an estimated ?550 licensed wineries, from large corporate facilities to virtual ones.

“We have been lacking a voice of communication out to the community,” Arnold-Sessions said. “We really work hard to do the right thing and try to find common ground.”

The group intends to publish a “best practices” booklet and hold seminars for its members covering such topics as use permits, event management, parking and noise restrictions and septic permits.

The items can range from the technical to the simple, such as having a contact number on a winery’s website during an event so that a staff member can be reached immediately if problems arise, Sessions said.

The new hire will work with wineries on their events and permit applications as well as act as liaison with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, the Board of Supervisors and community groups to help avoid potential problems.

The county’s Planning Commission has faced frequent battles over winery permitting for special events, especially as the industry has increasingly relied on customer visits to drive sales rather than retail outlets. The initiative also comes ahead of expected further regulation next year by the Board of Supervisors, including the thorny debate over what constitutes a winery event.

The group will model its outreach by that of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, whose annual Passport event attracts 6,000 visitors each spring with minimal problems.

“I think 95 percent of the issues facing this industry can be solved by calling your neighbor,” said Ann Petersen, executive director for the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley.

The Dry Creek association has capped the number of visitors for Passport and raised prices - now at $150 per person - to limit potential problems. It also requires each participating winery to create traffic and parking plans that are reviewed annually, including off-site parking and shuttles if necessary.

The Dry Creek area also has the benefit of a citizens advisory council that serves as a bridge between the community and Sonoma County, vetting plans before they come before the Planning Commission. Petersen said the council serves as a good conduit to clear up issues before they are formalized. The Mark West area just received such a council.

The Dry Creek citizens advisory council last week approved a modified use permit for Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. The county in 2014 ordered Bella to end participation in all events after it had been holding unauthorized ones for years.

The new Bella application seeks approval for up to 10 days of industrywide events, six agricultural promotion events and 24 winemaker lunches or dinners. The permit will be brought before the Board of Supervisors.

Community activists said in statements that they welcomed the new outreach by the industry, but questioned whether the move is for good PR rather than changes that will curtail bad behavior.

“No one disputes the benefits of the wine and tourism industry, yet the industry needs to address the associated risks and costs in a meaningful way. It’s to everyone’s long-term interest to balance economic growth and the rights of all property owners,” said Padi Selwyn, the co-chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, a community volunteer group.

“We are encouraged that the Vintners have heard community concerns about the downsides associated with not addressing the impacts and long-term costs of our winery and tourism economic boom. However, we are concerned that the Vintners’ focus on best practices for industrywide events only is a red herring,” said Judith Olney of the Westside Community Association. “The real issue is the cumulative impacts of over 2,600 events - permitted at only 140 individual wineries - many that extend through the cocktail hour and into the night.”

Arnold-Sessions said she wouldn’t talk specifically about a few high-profile battles, such as the proposed Dairyman Winery and Event Center just outside Sebastopol and a proposed new tasting room and additional events at Kenwood Vineyards off Highway 12. But she added if the Vintners could play a constructive role, she would lead the effort on any front.

“I still have optimism that when good people have realized they have gone outside the bounds, they are willing to step up and do the right thing,” she said.

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

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