Close to Home: The truth about ‘ag-washing’ in Sonoma County
Recent tourism surveys identified the beauty of the rural landscape as our number one tourist attraction. Yes, even scoring higher than wine tasting.
We all agree that tourism is an important component of our economy. It supports town-based hotels, restaurants and businesses, while a positive visitor experience creates loyal consumers of Sonoma County wine.
However, when a farmer says he or she can no longer profitably grow crops without an event facility, luxury overnight accommodations, a commercial kitchen and food service, it begs the question: Are county approvals of ever-more intensive hospitality uses merely “informal spot-zoning,” resulting in commercialization of our ag lands?
County decision-makers must face the uncomfortable truth that merely “ag-washing” intensive hospitality uses along rural byways – i.e. justifying income streams from the sale of event tickets, food service and rental of facilities as “agriculture” - has unintended consequences. The cumulative impacts of frequent, long-duration drinking parties on road safety, the drawdown of water aquifers, the creation of an uneven playing field for compliant wineries and the loss of business by restaurants in our rural towns have real impacts. It’s time for consistent regulations that provide all landowners equal protection under the law.
Currently, the county has permitted more than 2,600 ag-promotional events each year; and there are an escalating number of non-permitted events held annually. In fact, the general plan projected 239 wineries by the year 2020. By mid-2014, more than 439 use permits had been granted, most with far more intensive hospitality uses than ever envisioned.
This calls into question whether those entrusted with the future of our county understand the cumulative impacts of these trends or the requirements of state environmental laws.
Case in Point: On June 4, the 7171 West Dry Creek event facility/ micro-winery was heard by the Board of Zoning Adjustments/Planning Commission.
The project defined in a June staff report was materially different from the project description presented for public scrutiny and input prior to the canceled May 21 hearing.
It contained significantly more intensive uses including a commercial kitchen, weddings and food-pairing rights not included in either the vested use permit project or the April/May project definition upon which the county based its environmental analysis and findings.
The Board of Zoning Adjustments decision had multiple flaws: 1) the public had no chance to review the revised project, 2) the impacts of the intensified hospitality uses were never evaluated relative to water availability or public safety and 3) technical studies identifying potential impacts were ignored.
In April, the Dry Creek Valley Association submitted an expert technical study, including supporting traffic count data, that identified site distance and safety problems given blind curves along this segment of one-lane road.
The technical study findings were neither incorporated nor addressed in the county’s May environmental documents that concluded there would be no impact from the proposal.Yet, in June, the commissioners agreed verbally that road safety impacts exist.
How can our county officials turn their backs on critical water and public safety concerns for neighbors and tourists alike? This process was clearly contrary to state law, yet it was approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustments on a 4 to 1 vote.
Time is of the essence for the county to develop consistent and criteria-based guidelines that protect our rural character lest “we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
We expect the Winery Advisory Group, convened to advise the Planning Department on over concentration and intensity of events, to strike a needed balance; making recommendations that preserve our cherished rural character - our most valuable tourist attraction and the reason we choose to live here.
Judith Olney is a Healdsburg resident and member of the Westside Community Association planning and zoning committee.