Winery events a hot-button issue in 4th District race

When restaurateur and Food Network star Guy Fieri sought approval in April to build a new 10,000-case winery west of Santa Rosa, a county zoning board postponed voting on his proposal after hearing neighbors protest. Dozens of residents in the Willowside Road area complained about increased traffic on their narrow country road and opposed 14 proposed winery events a year they said would invite loud noise into the evening hours.

Twenty miles north on a similar rural road, the entrance sign at Michel-Schlumberger, a winery in Dry Creek Valley, touts “vineyard tours and wine tasting daily.” The winery’s website advertises events. On May 3, it was Derby Day, a celebration of the Kentucky Derby. Later in May, it was a Mother’s Day brunch, and a few weeks later a Memorial Day picnic.

The winery’s permit, however, does not allow public wine tasting or special events, according to Sonoma County planning officials.

Less than 6 miles north on West Dry Creek Road, Bella Vineyards - known for its zinfandel and wine cave tastings - has for years held numerous parties and participated in special events that county planners say were not authorized in the winery’s permit.

The trio of conflicts, with neighbors and county rules, all have occurred in the county’s 4th supervisorial district, spanning such famous wine regions as the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. Other corners of Sonoma County have not been immune to similar issues, but the 4th District has become the hot spot for fights over the expansion of wineries that double as event centers, with packed calendars including weddings, harvest parties and winemaker dinners.

The offerings have become an important marketing tool and revenue source for the county’s wineries, which now number more than 400. Only 132 wineries are allowed to hold special events outside of industrywide functions or regular public tasting. That amounts to nearly 2,700 permitted events a year, according to county records.

But rising public outcry over winery events - including unauthorized functions - has led to closer attention recently on impacts that opponents say range from increased traffic and noise to strain on scarce water resources. The issue, spotlighted in a rare county move two weeks ago to crack down on Bella, is a central topic of discussion in the race between James Gore and Deb Fudge to decide who takes over for Mike McGuire as 4th District supervisor. On the campaign trail, both candidates say rural residents’ complaints about events have intensified.

“It’s one of the biggest problems I’ve been hearing about - businesses are operating in a gray area, and neighbors are frustrated,” said Gore, a former Obama administration appointee whose campaign has major backing from the wine industry. “It’s complicated, because we need to support industries that are the lifeblood of our economy. At the same time, the winery has to fit the community.”

Fudge, a longtime Windsor Town councilwoman favored by environmental groups, said that compared to four years ago, when she ran unsuccessfully for supervisor, protests have grown more pronounced.

“Tempers are flaring,” Fudge said. “I hear lots of complaints about the special events.”

Both candidates are guarded in revealing their positions on the most controversial projects in the 4th District - including Bella, Michel-Schlumberger and Fieri’s new winery proposal. They were clearer in staking out differing priorities on how they would deal with the expansion of wineries into the county’s rural pockets, as well as broader policies to regulate events.

Fudge said she would focus on county-driven studies assessing specific areas to avoid over-concentration of event centers. Gore outlined an approach that would invest much of the decision making about projects to advisory groups consisting of neighbors and businesses.

The winner of the Nov. 4 election likely will play a major role in shaping the county’s direction on the matter. A win by Fudge would solidify an alliance of three supervisors backed by environmental groups, including Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin, and likely lead to a tighter regulatory approach on winery events. A Gore victory would form a board majority backed by farming interests, including Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt, and likely maintain looser industry rules.

The Board of Supervisors this week is set to vote whether to make rules for winery events a top work priority in the coming year. Already, supervisors and planning commissioners often defer to the representative of the district where a proposal is located, and the majority of applications for new wineries and winery events are concentrated in the northern part of the county represented by McGuire, who running for state Senate.

The debate is not an entirely new one, but any sweeping action could ripple through the county’s wine industry and affect wine-related tourism, which generates more than $1.25 billion for the local economy, according to an industry-funded report released earlier this year.

“This has been discussed for more than 20 years,” said Bob Anderson, who serves as executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County and is a frequent observer at Board of Supervisors meetings.

Those involved in the matter, including industry representatives, county officials and neighbors, say the rebounding economy has created a visible uptick in wineries’ hosting events without the required permit, as tourists flock to the county’s popular wine regions for nuptials, special parties and annual industrywide offerings such as Wine Road Barrel Tasting and Winter Wine Weekend.

The demand for event space is especially acute in the north county. A Press Democrat analysis found that since January 2013, 14 out of 16 approved permits for events were for new and existing wineries located in the 4th District. Hundreds of complaints also have been filed both in the district and countywide in recent years detailing concerns over winery expansions into rural settings - with or without permission.

Mounting opposition to unpermitted events led to the county’s preliminary move this month to halt all wine-related events at Bella. It also has stalled proposals like Fieri’s, called Hunt-Ryd Winery, as well as an application at Michel-Schlumberger, whose owners are asking for permission to hold 52 events a year.

Gore and Fudge say the Board of Supervisors must respond to the uproar by coming up with clearer rules. Both agree that instead of permitting one project at a time, the county should draft area-specific regulations, taking into account size and quality of roads, water availability and proximity of wineries to neighbors.

“That could help residents from going out and fighting every single proposal, because they’d know what’s allowed and what isn’t,” Fudge said.

Fudge said she would evaluate particular roads and valleys, assessing the impact of other wineries in the area. She said she’d work with residents to create micro-area plans - along West Dry Creek Road or Westside Road, for example - to limit the number and size of events, while factoring what is already permitted.

“I grew up in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley,” Fudge said, recalling the spread of suburban growth in and around San Jose, as acres of fruit trees were cleared for development. “I remember the cherry and apricot orchards, the plums, the small farm stands. I saw that area become a wall of subdivisions, and it happened because nobody was paying attention to the bigger picture.”

Fudge said that perspective has influenced her policy ideas and that she would take a hard look at where wineries are situated in the county before granting new permits.

“There is an over-concentration of wineries on those narrow roads,” she said. “We need to take a bird’s-eye view and look at the cumulative impacts of wineries and the events they have, instead of looking at them on a case-by-case basis. If you don’t, it gets too congested, and you’ve really ruined the quality of life we’ve worked so hard to protect.”

Gore favors a different approach. He said his first task would be to convene citizens groups, mirroring an effort McGuire launched at the start of his term almost four years ago.

In response to neighborhood upheaval in his district, McGuire formed the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council. The group, appointed by supervisors, is composed of two members from the Dry Creek Valley Association, a neighborhood group, two from the industry organization Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley and one member selected by McGuire.

“What we have tried to do is bring a fresh approach,” said McGuire, referring to the advisory council. “My philosophy is that projects will be stronger when applicants work with neighbors.”

The body acts as another planning level. Applications for new wineries or events in the Dry Creek Valley area first are evaluated by the advisory council before moving to the Board of Zoning Adjustments.

“I think Supervisor McGuire has the right strategy,” Gore said. “Any applications for wineries or events should first deal with citizens groups and assess impacts on a neighborhood.”

Fred Corson, chairman of the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council and a resident of West Dry Creek Road, said he has noticed a groundswell of interest from neighbors and wine industry representatives clamoring to help craft new policy in response to both community opposition and tourism-related demand in Wine Country events. The five-member body has spent the bulk of its time grappling with what kind of projects and how many events are appropriate in the rural area.

“There is so much confusion about what’s allowed and what isn’t, and that has caused much of the problem,” said Corson, 72. “In the past, some thought there was value in ambiguity because it gave flexibility in what was being approved, but with this board, we’re working to get better definitions and more clarity.”

Supporters of Gore and Fudge say their respective professional backgrounds qualify them to tackle the divisive issue.

Gore’s backers pointed to his experience in Washington, D.C., at the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“James has experience working on regulatory issues alongside agriculture groups, and I believe he can build consensus to get something done,” said Anderson, the United Winegrowers director.

Supervisor Zane, who has endorsed Fudge, highlighted the councilwoman’s 18 years as an elected official in Windsor. She cited the development of the Windsor Town Green as evidence Fudge knows how to work with business groups and members of the public.

“Deb understands planning and land use - it’s what she’s done in Windsor for almost 20 years and it’s what she has a degree in,” Zane said.

Fudge and Gore said they agree with restrictions planning commissioners have begun to adopt with recent applications. The measures include a review process two years after permits are granted and limits on amplified sound. The zoning board has also begun to restrict weddings at wineries, arguing most often that weddings do not promote agriculture.

Fudge said she supports the strong stand on wedding limits.

“I wouldn’t say no to weddings, but on smaller roads, I don’t think big weddings would be appropriate,” she said.

Gore said he would not ban weddings, which he contended help promote agriculture.

Both candidates said that when wineries are holding unpermitted events, the county should enforce penalties.

“I believe that if someone is operating outside of their permit, they need to be regulated,” Gore said. “The rules are in place for a reason.”

But Gore said that even if a winery violated its permit, he’d continue to allow participation in industrywide tasting events.

“Those are defined as promotion of agriculture,” Gore said. “Wine dinners, tastings and industry events do not have a lot of negative effects on a community.”

Fudge said wineries should only be allowed to participate in events - whether they’re defined as industrywide, special or just called an event generically - if it is clearly spelled out in the winery’s application before a permit is granted.

“Events need to be defined,” Fudge said. “There shouldn’t be any assumptions, even if a permit is silent on events. That’s when misunderstandings occur.”

The confusion arises from the county’s evolving definition of events and two different tracks that wineries can pursue to get permission. Currently, wineries permitted to hold public wine tastings are allowed to participate in industrywide events. The general plan also allows for a wider range of events that promote agriculture, such as wine tastings and pairing dinners. Winery owners must specify exactly the number of those types of events they plan to hold each year before they are authorized to do so.

The county’s current stance is that when events are not listed, they are prohibited. Enforcement is complaint-driven. Without vocal opposition, most winery owners face little scrutiny.

“There’s no real rule in the county about events,” said Richard Idell, an attorney who is part of a group including local vintners, business organizations and community organizations seeking to help draw up clearer guidelines “The problem is we have a variety of definitions and words related to events - industry events, special events, cultural events - we’re trying to come up with some consistency.”

Absent formal direction from supervisors in recent years, planning commissioners have largely been implementing their own regulations limiting winery events.

Idell said as the Board of Supervisors moves forward, the county needs to be careful not to undermine the business that events bring to the wine and tourism sector.

“There’s a new paradigm - not producing as much wine, and selling directly to consumers through wine dinners, wine events and industry events,” Idell said. “It’s about creating that relationship and building generational loyalty.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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