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Sonoma County winery events could be limited by Planning Commission

How to attend

Members of the public can watch or listen to the meeting by calling in or by using Zoom

When: Thursday, 1 p.m.

Where: Zoom, sonomacounty.ca.gov/Planning-Commission/Calendar/Planning-Commission-Meeting-June-3-2021/ or call 669-900-9128 (Meeting ID 940 1209 0103, Passcode 226572)

After years of wrangling, Sonoma County officials are moving forward this week with a measure that will spell out what wineries can and can’t do when it comes to hosting events.

It’s the latest chapter in a long debate that has pitted the politically powerful sector against local activists and residents who say an influx of tourists is threatening their quality of life with traffic congestion and noise.

The county’s Planning Commission will hold a Thursday meeting in which the panel intends to vote on a draft ordinance that has been crafted by staff.

Planning officials searched for a middle ground between the interests of a main economic driver in the county against mobilized community groups in the areas of Sonoma Valley, Westside Road and Dry Creek Valley where the issue has become a flash point. Permit Sonoma held a virtual forum in February to solicit suggestions from stakeholders and their input went into the document.

The ordinance would set new standards for winery events, spelling out rules covering parking and traffic management; food service; event coordination with neighbors; and noise.

In recent years, such permit applications have been aimed at very specific groups, namely those who are affected by these winery events because they either throw them and attend them or live near a place where they happen. The issue is reminiscent of the debate that was sparked over vintner David Ramey’s winery project on Westside Road, which was ultimately approved a few years ago.

The measure, which mirrors steps that Napa County took years ago to rein in the proliferation of wineries and tasting rooms, would only apply to new permits and wineries seeking to modifying their existing permits.

Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma, said the draft was crafted to get “really at the heart of addressing the need to balance the needs of these two important communities.”

As of 2016, Sonoma County had 307 wineries approved for visitor tasting rooms and about 155 of those permits allowed for events, Dunn said. Since 2016, the county has approved another 17 wineries and tasting rooms for use permits and those proceedings have gotten more contentious along the way.

“We think the clarity that this ordinance provides for the application process and evaluation process will both reduce the impacts on surrounding properties … and also make it easier for people seeking these permits to have a good sense of what the expectations are,” Dunn said.

The proposed rules would define various events.

A winery event would be events held at wineries and tasting rooms “for the purpose of promoting and marketing agricultural products” grown or processed in the county and “are secondary and incidental” to agricultural production.

Agricultural promotion events would be “directly related to public education, sales and promotion” of agricultural products to consumers.

Under the definitions, a traditional wine tasting would be limited from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the food service would have to be a simple food-and-wine pairing and prepackaged food plates.

Agricultural promotion activities — winemaker lunches and dinners, release parties, club parties — would be allowed from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Industry events sponsored by a trade group would be limited to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The proposal also would require setbacks for noise with parking lots having to be placed 450 feet away from adjacent property. Acoustic music would have to be 625 feet away and amplified music at least 1,600 feet.

The ordinance would further encourage wineries to go through local community advisory councils in certain areas to streamline the permitting and address potential problems early in the process to work toward a resolution.

The Dry Creek Valley has had such guidelines since 2017 and hasn’t experienced the uproar like other areas. The Sonoma Valley council is expected to adopt its guidelines this summer. The Westside Road area currently does not have such a council.

“It’s about working with those communities to make sure we are recognizing and understanding the density of visitors and what that means for those communities,” Dunn said of the councils.

Mike Martini, co-owner of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol, noted the proposal “was a long time coming” and he didn’t have many concerns over the draft.

Still, Martini said he had some wariness over wineries looking to modify their use permits under the draft and whether they could encounter hassles like what Ramey went through. “Say if you want add some space to your barrel room or tank pad?” Martini said. “Does that mean everything’s up for having to go through a very onerous process?”

Activist Marc Bommersbach of Westside Road said the draft was a good first step.

His group, Preserve Rural Sonoma County, suggested further items to be included such as establishing a 20-acre minimum parcel size for new wineries and mandating that there would be only a maximum of two wineries within a half-mile stretch of roadway. Such requirements would reduce overconcentration within certain areas and limit traffic problems, Bommersbach said.

“The concern we have is that we got over 30 permits on this (Westside) Road and if each one of them starts to do a bit more … it becomes a safety issue,” Bommersbach said.

If the Planning Commission approves the proposal, the Board of Supervisors would take it up in August.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5233 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

How to attend

Members of the public can watch or listen to the meeting by calling in or by using Zoom

When: Thursday, 1 p.m.

Where: Zoom, sonomacounty.ca.gov/Planning-Commission/Calendar/Planning-Commission-Meeting-June-3-2021/ or call 669-900-9128 (Meeting ID 940 1209 0103, Passcode 226572)

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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