Sonoma County forms advisory panel for crafting winery regulations
Sonoma County planning officials have named high-powered winery executives, leading environmentalists and several rural residents to a 21-member panel formed to give input on the highly charged issue of winery development in the county.
The group includes officials from Jackson Family Wines and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau as well as neighborhood representatives concerned about development encroaching on the county’s rural character.
Between next month and March 2016, the panel is charged with crafting proposed regulations for the unincorporated area that could set new standards for events at wineries, including how many should be allowed per year and what type - from weddings to wine pairing dinners and industry events such as barrel tasting weekend.
The advisory process, set up to inform county planners and the Board of Supervisors, is launching amid an escalating debate over winery development in the county, focused especially on new and expanding sites that seek to double as event centers. The outcome, including potential tighter limits and more strict enforcement for wineries, is seen as having high stakes for the region’s signature industry.
“This is very important to the industry, but the impacts are also important to neighborhood activists,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, which oversees planning and building permits, including those for new or expanded wineries. “We’re going to be focused on what type of events should be allowed, and potential over-concentration of events in some areas.”
Rural residents have voiced increased concern about an onslaught of traffic and noise they say is associated with a growing number of special gatherings at wineries situated on backcountry roads. Neighbors also are worried about the strain on the region’s natural resources, including groundwater.
Winery owners and industry representatives say their projects have limited impacts, and they point to measures they have taken to reduce traffic and noise in their neighborhoods. They also defend their use of events to promote their businesses, saying such gatherings are crucial to boost direct sales.
Both sides acknowledge that the long-simmering debate about the issue has reached a boiling point.
“These issues are not new, but we are finding that we need some common definitions about what counts as an event, and some kind of framework for setting the rules,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, who is one of those representing the industry on the panel. “That way, all parties know what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
Other industry representatives include Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission; Carolyn Stark, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners; John Azevedo, a Healdsburg grape grower and president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau; and Katie Jackson, director of government relations and sustainability for Santa Rosa-based Jackson Family Wines.
Rural residents selected to participate include Fred Corson, a Dry Creek Valley homeowner who is also chairman of the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council; Joan Fleck, who led the effort to protest celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s proposed winery on Willowside Road in Santa Rosa; Rue Furch, a former county planning commissioner involved in a group critical of winery expansion in rural areas; and Marc Bommersbach, a vocal critic of winery development on rural roads who leads the Westside Association to Save Agriculture.
Corson, who has opposed several recent Dry Creek winery projects, said the county’s effort to draw up rules for events and other winery development issues is long overdue.
“There’s so much ambiguity and confusion about what’s allowed under current permits,” Corson said. “And more applications are pending - that’s why this is so critical.”
Event offerings have become a key marketing tool and revenue source for wineries, which now number more than 400 outside city limits in the county - with 62 applications for new or expanded wineries in the pipeline. Meanwhile, complaints about events and their impacts on surrounding neighborhoods are intensifying.
The public backlash has grown more pronounced over the past year, as vintners seek to expand their winery operations or build new wineries in world-class grape growing regions that many residents say are already overwhelmed by wine tourism and traffic.
“I think the industry has grown significantly, without checks and balances,” Fleck said. “I’m looking forward to being involved and helping come up with some solutions.”
County planning commissioners are set to weigh in on the group’s recommendations by January 2016, with a finalized proposal heading to the Board of Supervisors next March. The total county budget allocated for the effort is $96,500.
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ahartreports.