Sonoma County winery development at issue in debate about events
Sonoma County has approved more than 300 new wineries and tasting rooms in the past 16 years - a nearly 360 percent increase over the previous three decades - and many of those wineries have decided in recent years to boost business by offering an array of events, from wine-tasting dinners to weddings and harvest parties.
Representatives of the county's multibillion-dollar wine industry say such events are vital for local vintners to sell their wines and stay competitive.
But the industry's growth has sparked strong blowback from many rural residents, who say unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.
The expansion has fueled an intense standoff between wine industry supporters and critics over the extent of commercial activity in rural pockets of the county, on properties zoned for agriculture. Supporters say wineries and the county's 62,135 acres of developed vineyards have protected big swaths of open space, preserved a local farm economy and transformed Sonoma County into a destination for travelers from across the globe.
“There may be some unhappy neighbors, but I think there are a lot of people who are happy with what wineries are doing for the county, economically and philanthropically,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, a local trade organization.
But critics say the industry's expansion has gone overboard, impacting daily life for winery neighbors while clogging area roads, draining natural resources and fostering what some have described as a year-round party atmosphere, attracting thousands of visitors to the most popular annual events.
“The county needs to evaluate the cumulative impact of this explosive growth,” said Marc Bommersbach, a Healdsburg resident who lives along Westside Road, home to more than 20 wineries. Nine others have been approved but are not yet built. “It's the traffic and noise for adjacent property owners, but the bigger issue is that all of this development is commercializing our agricultural lands and diminishing the rural character of this county.”
The debate has escalated from small neighborhood disputes into hourslong discussions at packed public meetings. In the last year it has also been inflamed by a county crackdown on two Healdsburg-area wineries for hosting what county officials said were unauthorized events. Added to the mix was celebrity chef Guy Fieri's proposal to build a new winery on a rural road west of Santa Rosa, a plan rejected 18 months ago by county planning commissioners amid overwhelming opposition from neighbors.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is set to weigh in for the first time publicly in the broader debate. The planned 2 p.m. workshop is meant to decide the county's approach on a range of potential regulations, including limits on events and curbs on future winery development in some popular grape-growing regions.
“This is an important step to formulate what future legislation may look like,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman. “We want to ensure the long-term preservation of agriculture and open space in this county, but we also have to manage the impacts of the industry. Events in some cases have gotten out of hand, and I think we've seen that in the escalation of concern from various communities.”
Wine industry representatives are asking the county to relax its rules on events, while neighborhood groups are pressing county officials to rein in winery development and cap the number of sanctioned events. At present, 291 of the 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits are allowed to hold events, adding up to more than 2,600 event days per year, according to county data.
Industry representatives and local vintners suggested any large-scale effort to restrict the flow of commerce is government overreach. They contend the controversy centers on a few wineries known to break the rules.
“It's unfortunate that we've had one or two bad apples,” said Sessions. “We sustain by selling our wine, and the best way to gain long-term customers - especially for smaller wineries - is to develop those relationships for life. That's why these activities and events are so important.”
But neighborhood groups and rural residents say winery development has grown too quickly across the county, from Dry Creek Valley in the north to Sonoma Valley in the south. As county officials confront a sharp increase in applications for new tasting rooms and event permits, industry critics say a new wave of activity could add to the problems, increasing traffic, draining water supplies and adding outside noise.