Close to Home: Are Sonoma County’s byways becoming inebriation highways?

Drunk and dangerous drivers on Sonoma County’s narrow, rural roads are a sobering reality. Are we encouraging more?|

Drunk and dangerous drivers on Sonoma County's narrow, rural roads are a sobering reality. Based on California Highway Patrol records from 2009-2013, our county's DUI-related fatalities are nearly double the state average. Another report with 14 years of traffic accident data shows that, of the 325 people killed on Sonoma County roads in that time period, 75 percent of the deaths were DUI-related.

Despite these disturbing statistics, county officials continue to ignore public safety risks, approving alcohol-serving event center facilities on substandard roads. And, all too often, permits are based on traffic studies that come with inaccurate assumptions and lack cumulative impact analysis.

A few years ago, the county justified approving event centers masquerading as wineries on one-lane byways by claiming, among other things, “the potholes slow the drivers down.” Despite public safety protests, the county permitted several facilities with rights to hold 29 weddings along a one-lane segment of West Dry Creek. Just a few months ago, supervisors approved serving alcohol at an event center on Sonoma Mountain - one of the most dangerous roads in the county - even though alternative tasting room locations exist.

Weddings are high-emotion events with family dynamics leading to conflict often fueled by copious amounts of alcohol. There's a very real probability that drivers leaving weddings, and navigating dark, winding roads, literally will be “over the line.”

Now, the county is justifying approval of “event centers morphing into restaurants,” using the “food service will prevent inebriation” defense. Granted, seated food service generates increased revenue from sales of food and wine. However, it also has a downside. It is only human nature for people to linger longer and have “one more for the road” when seated and sated.

Long duration drinking, even with food, leads to inebriated drivers - whether at a restaurant, friend's home and now at tasting rooms, provided there's a use permit.

In the near future, “one toke over the line” drivers may join our “over the line” drivers. Will county officials say they've slowed drivers down by “repurposing event centers into marijuana tasting rooms?”

I can't wait for the letters from bicyclists complaining that vehicles ambling along at 10 mph are hard to pass, significantly impacting their pace.

Kidding aside, bicyclists are hard to pass legally on narrow roads. However, no cyclist deserves to pay the ultimate price for merely impeding someone's drive to the next event venue.

Dangerous driving situations are just one consequence of market-driven approvals designed to optimize each owner's income, with no assessment of cumulative impacts. For seven years, community leaders have advocated for standards that balance the protection of public safety and the property rights of homeowners with the ever-intensifying demands of the hospitality industry.

Yet, ever more approvals of elaborate entertainment venues remain unchecked. Lack of enforcement emboldens owners to join the “arms race.” Club members demand the next new thing - and the parties become more extravagant - focusing more on the party and less on agricultural promotion. Now, a new trend is proliferating, with event planners holding large-scale events on remote vineyard properties, with no infrastructure, and not even covered by a use permit.

This intensification of highly commercial uses on ag land is spot zoning - with minimal assessment of impacts, analysis of consequences or consideration of adjacent property-owner's rights. Neighbors who raise questions about impacts or their rights for due process under the law are vilified. Meanwhile, those creating the impacts are not held accountable for paying the additional costs of emergency services or road safety improvements.

It's time for county officials to address public safety concerns and stop approving alcohol-serving facilities on dangerous rural roads. It's not a matter of if but when more people will die.

Judith Olney, a resident of Healdsburg, is co-chairwoman of the Preserve Rural Sonoma County. For more information, go to

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