Healdsburg City Council votes to limit downtown tasting rooms

The City Council's unanimous vote will also apply to bars and cocktail lounges to avoid a 'commercial monoculture.'|

Even in Wine Country there can be such a thing as too much emphasis on wine, or at least tasting rooms that offer samples of the fruit of the vine.

The Healdsburg City Council Monday unanimously approved a new ordinance limiting the number of downtown tasting rooms and also extending the restriction to bars and cocktail lounges.

The intent is to maintain a mix of retail services and uses, and encourage economic diversity.

“We want to avoid a commercial monoculture and offer something for people not interested in the wine industry. Maybe they want to shop,” said Council member Leah Gold.

“People don’t come to this town to spend money only on wine,” said Vice-mayor Brigette Mansell. “They come for small-town character. They like to do a lot of local activities.”

Healdsburg, which has been described as the belle of the Wine Country ball, is positioned at the confluence of three scenic valleys that produce highly prized grapes and help make it a tourist destination for drinking and dining.

But it has also caused a tension as residents try to strike a balance between an industry that not only bolsters the economy, but also can bring too many visitors and erode small town charm.

The proliferation of tasting rooms is a symptom of the problem to those worried Healdsburg is at a tipping point. Others say tasting rooms are being unfairly singled out. Nancy Beeken, who works in marketing for a winery, said there is also a glut of real estate offices downtown.

“People flock to Healdsburg for many reasons, one of which is our world-renowned wine,” she told the council Monday. “I don’t know of anyone who is flocking to Healdsburg for our world-renowned Realtors.”

She said it was also unfair to lump in tasting rooms - which typically close in the afternoon or early evening - with bars that close at 2 a.m.

But Merrilyn Joyce argued in favor of the ordinance saying tasting rooms raise the rent on a block and end up replacing local businesses.

Councilman Joe Naujokas said that when it comes to tasting rooms “you know something’s wrong when you see it. There is a strong sense there is too much. There is an overconcentration.”

Healdsburg has 30 tasting rooms and seven bars in a downtown area that comprises 34 block faces.

For the last decade, there’s been an informal guideline restricting tasting rooms to one per downtown block face. But it hasn’t always been adhered to. Monday, the council agreed it should be strictly enforced with an ordinance that also includes wine bars, craft beer and distillery tasting rooms. The 30 or so downtown restaurants that serve alcohol are exempt from the ordinance.

In the downtown area, there are currently 12 block faces that do not contain a tasting room, bar or cocktail lounge. But half of those are on Piper and East streets across from homes, and the ordinance will prohibit alcohol uses along those block faces.

Police say the tasting rooms have not been a significant source of arrests or problems such as public intoxication. They do, however, increase parking demand and create a noisy atmosphere that some decry.

Healdsburg is distinct from other cities in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in that none of the other wine tourism destinations surveyed by Healdsburg planners has a cap on the number of facilities or require a certain distance between them.

But the town of Sonoma, which also has a plethora of tasting rooms, is considering limiting their number, an issue expected to come before its City Council soon.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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