PD Editorial: Place some limits on disruptive winery events

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

The wine industry has been a tremendous boon for Sonoma County, but wineries can be annoying neighbors, too. In the interest of everyone’s sanity and safety, the county’s Planning Commission should send a draft event ordinance to the Board of Supervisors.

Tension between wineries and neighbors is not new, and neither is talk about addressing it. The draft ordinance, depending how one counts, has been in the works for five years, though there had been discussions and public hearings predating that.

Complaints typically focus on some of the most disruptive and dangerous elements of events, especially traffic and drunken drivers. Bicyclists submitted comments to the county during the current process noting that vineyard visitors aren’t always big on sharing the road.

There also can be noise and nighttime lights disrupting the natural beauty and serenity for which Sonoma County is known. Live music that goes into the evening especially bothers nearby residents.

One commenter summed up residents’ frustration and what they thought the county should do about it, writing, “Please STOP permitting winery events in Sonoma County. Actually, STOP permitting any more wineries!”

That’s not going to happen. The county won’t stop permitting wineries and events that attract visitors. Too many jobs and livelihoods are at stake.

Sonoma County Vintners, the professional organization of the local wine industry, calculates that 1 in 4 local jobs are in the industry. That’s more than 54,000 full-time employees and more than $3 billion in wages. On top of that, the industry brings in $1.2 billion worth of tourism.

View those numbers with some skepticism, of course. Industry groups tend to wear rose-tinted glasses when looking in the mirror. But even if the actual figures are lower, no one can deny the enormous economic impact of the wine industry. Longtime residents have watched the county transform over decades as the industry has grown and thrived.

Today there are more than 450 permitted wineries and tasting rooms in the unincorporated parts of the county. About two-thirds of them have permits that allow events, and most can participate in industrywide events that can span the county and draw crowds.

Some constraints will not ruin the industry. The draft ordinance, which will be discussed Thursday by the Sonoma County Planning Commission, is modeled on a Napa County ordinance. It would limit hours for tasting rooms and parties, restrict what sorts of food service would be allowed and require setbacks for music from neighboring properties.

The ordinance emerged from a prolonged public process that welcomed all stakeholders. It probably won’t make everyone happy, but it strikes a reasonable balance between the rights of wineries to serve customers on site and the rights of neighbors to enjoy some peace, quiet and safe roads.

If the Planning Commission passes the draft ordinance, the Board of Supervisors expects to take it up in August. That will leave plenty of time for people who think it doesn’t go far enough, or that it goes too far, to suggest improvements. These conflicts have aged for too long. The time is ripe to settle them, for the sake of Sonoma County’s signature industry and its neighbors.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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