Critics, supporters of Sonoma County wineries pack hearing on new regulations

Five hundred people filled an emotional Santa Rosa meeting on winery development in Sonoma County Monday night.|

An estimated 500 people packed the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa on Monday for a meeting to gather public input on potential new regulations on winery development in Sonoma County - a high-profile issue that has drawn backlash from rural residents protesting growth as well as sharp criticism from wine industry representatives who say they are helping preserve open space.

Neighbors who live in prime grape-growing regions like the Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys have been increasingly vocal over the past year about the surge in applications for new wineries, as well as the spread of tasting rooms and wineries that double as event centers.

Scores of rural residents, environmentalists and industry experts spoke at Monday’s three-hour meeting in front of a crowd that appeared split on the issue.

About half the audience wore green T-shirts emblazoned with thick white lettering that read “Proud to support Sonoma County Agriculture,” while others wore stickers that said “Let’s preserve rural Sonoma County.”

Critics say the proliferating operations are drawing unruly crowds, traffic and noise to their bucolic settings, threatening public safety, natural resources and a rural quality of life.

“The present pace of wineries, tasting rooms and events is increasing at an exponential pace - more regulations are needed,” said Wendy Krupnick, a Santa Rosa Junior College teacher who is active with the nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farms. “This cannot be sustained without depletion of the agricultural land and water, creating a problem that will discourage visitors and frustrate residents.”

Wine industry representatives, however, say that while some problems may exist, most wineries follow the rules. Tasting rooms, events and the customers they attract are a key part of maintaining and driving business for Sonoma County labels, they contend.

Some in the industry say the county should step up enforcement of its existing rules on events and tasting rooms instead of enacting new regulations.

“The county (is) not doing its job,” said Ridgely Evers, a winemaker who owns DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg. “Most of us are trying to do the right thing ... the problem is that enforcement is simply not there.”

Monday’s meeting was the first in a series of public forums planned over the next six months. County officials are drafting recommendations for the Board of Supervisors, which is set to take up potentially tighter limits early next year.

A range of proposals put forward by county staff includes standards for setbacks from neighboring property, limits on tasting room operations and hours and rules for attendance, access and parking at events.

Planning officials have sought feedback from a so-called winery working group comprised of rural residents and wine industry representatives over the past six months. One proposal that has come from those discussions includes limiting the number of events and new wineries in Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys - areas that already have a high concentration of wineries and tasting rooms situated on rural roads.

Other ideas include hiring a county event planner to oversee the broad calendar of wine-related events and ensure wineries are following the rules; restricting certain types of events such as weddings; capping industry-wide events, such as the upcoming Winter Wineland; curtailing the number of events allowed on popular wine tasting weekends to limit traffic and noise, as well as ramping up enforcement of existing rules.

Such suggestions drew heated and sometimes emotional exchanges Monday, with some in the audience pleading with county officials to halt winery growth altogether.

“We don’t need more wine; we don’t need more vineyards,” said Sebastopol resident Magick Altman. “There’s not enough water to let this go on.”

Others took issue with the cumulative impacts of wineries on their narrow county byways.

“There is a rural rebellion going, and what we’re trying to do is stop the ‘Napafication’ of Sonoma County,” said Padi Selwyn of Sebastopol, a founder of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, a coalition that says it opposes the “industrialization of agricultural lands.”

There are 439 wineries in Sonoma County, with an additional 60 in the pipeline, according to county officials. Of the operating wineries, 137 host approved events, totaling 2,600 events per year.

County regulations already require people who seek to build a new winery or host events to acquire a use permit, which requires an environmental review, as well as traffic and noise studies.

Critics say those impacts are not adequately studied, leading to areas in the county where wineries are depleting groundwater and creating unsafe neighborhood conditions, such as people driving drunk, and snarling the county’s roads with traffic.

Increasingly, however, winery owners and winemakers are jumping into the debate. They say they are helping prevent suburban housing sprawl and driving the county’s economy into recovery.

“By growing the best product available, and by branding Sonoma County as a quality producer and selling direct to consumers, it’s blunting the efforts of development in the agricultural areas,” said Mike Martini, a partner and general manager of Taft Street Winery in the Russian River yalley. “There are instances where there are issues, but regulation and weakening of the (county) general plan will only hurt the small producers ... and those who aren’t complying with their existing use permits aren’t going to comply if you put more regulation on them.”

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