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Sonoma County studies take issue with wine industry’s expansion, scrutinizing traffic, events

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Sonoma County wineries should bear the bulk of the responsibility for improving relations with rural neighbors, according to a pair of recently released county studies calling for fewer events, more coordination and a higher standard of review for new or expanding wineries.

The county-funded studies, which waded into the county’s most persistent land-use fight, encompass three of the most popular wine growing and tasting areas: Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road, as well as Sonoma Valley. In the reports, GHD, a private company with offices in Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek, looked at traffic counts, crashes and other symptoms of a long-running battle over the character of rural Sonoma County and expansion of its signature industry.

The county spent $168,897.96 on the studies.

The reports include some of the strongest criticism of the industry to emerge from the county’s prolonged look at wineries’ rural footprint, including the profusion of events and promotional activities now held by many winemakers. About 450 wineries exist in unincorporated Sonoma County.

Many in the wine industry are not convinced of the need for more strict regulations.

DaVero Farms and Winery owner Ridgely Evers said it’s about balance. The No. 1 problem is a lack of enforcement for current rules, he said. And bad actors will ignore more restrictive rules just like they do now, he added.

“This is a classic issue that you run into any time you intermingle residents and commerce,” said Evers, a 35-year county resident whose winery sits at Dry Creek Road and Westside Road, near the epicenter of the fight. “If you look at it from that perspective, obviously the right thing is some kind of balance.”

But neighbors say the study recommendations don’t go far enough to reduce cumulative impacts, and say many of the suggestions already are standard practice for nearly the past decade.

Judith Olney, co- chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County and chairwoman of the Westside Community Association, two organizations at odds with continued winery growth in rural areas, said recommendations like expanded shuttle service could actually increase traffic.

And she worries about undue influence from industry leaders, who want to authorize more winery events — and with them, more traffic, Olney said.

Separately, draft guidelines for new winery rules will be released next week, and will first make their way to an advisory committee for the Sonoma Valley at a Nov. 20 meeting, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin said Friday.

The draft guidelines were largely written by small stakeholder groups that gained access to the impact studies only on Wednesday, Permit Sonoma spokeswoman Maggie Fleming said, so it’s unlikely the preliminary guidelines will fully incorporate study recommendations.

In both Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, the studies make about a dozen recommendations, including requirements for transportation studies for any new development or permit renewal, provisions for robust communication ahead of large events, limits on the number of events and mandates that the busiest wineries contract with charter bus companies to reduce traffic.

Gorin, whose district encompasses Sonoma Valley, said she agrees with the thrust of the recommendations. It’s “absolutely” time for the industry to step up, she said.

Olney said county leaders must address public safety concerns now. Traffic volume and crash numbers already have surpassed the study, she said. And the danger will only increase, she said.

“Driving or biking on Westside Road is Russian River roulette,” she said.

County leaders have long put off key decisions on the issue and passed work to citizen groups, postponing resolution of one of the county’s most divisive land-use disputes.

In the summer of 2016, the Board of Supervisors promised to address the problem. They would look at event limits and possibly cap future winery development in key regions. But since then and in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 fires, the issue has rarely returned to the full board, if at all. The county has had less time to police disputes between wineries and rural neighbors.

In March 2016, a traffic conditions study was released. In August 2018, a petition featuring nearly 1,500 resident signatures was presented to the Board of Supervisors seeking a moratorium on new or expanded wineries.

Evers, the DaVero Winery owner, praised the county for instituting citizens advisory committees along the high-traffic winery routes, saying those groups have provided good representation and served to ease tension.

Industry leaders got out in front of the study’s release, hosting a unique meeting last month in the field for the county Planning Commission in an effort to inject industry- friendly language into the eventual land-use policy.

Sonoma County Vintners Executive Director Mike Haney, who helped organize the tour, did not respond this week to a request for comment. Organization spokeswoman Rose Jimenez said no one from the organization would be available to comment until next week.

Permit Sonoma officials tasked with drafting new guidelines were not available for an interview seeking answers about the process.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district overlaps Dry Creek Road and whose family is involved in the wine industry, said he has skimmed the studies. He said things have gotten better since he took office in 2017, but also stressed the need for affected areas of Sonoma County to accommodate sustainable growth and traffic.

Gore disputed the allegation that winery growth is undermining rural character. He pointed to “McMansions that have nothing to do with wineries” being built in the same areas.

“Does that drive rural character?” Gore asked.

The studies analyzed traffic patterns and crashes during and after peak season, which runs from June through September, as well as during industry- wide events — weekend or four-day events that include several wineries within the study area.

In nearly every case, traffic and crashes, including fatal crashes and car vs. bicycle crashes, were worse during peak season and during industry-wide events. Another major takeaway: The county’s roads don’t meet basic engineering standards for the current traffic volumes.

Improving roadways was among the first recommendations in both studies. Road improvements would address “most of the … deficiencies identified,” the consultant found.

“However, factors including high improvement costs, increased travel speeds, potential for environmental impacts and effects on the rural character of the valley and community values are all considerations that make substantial improvements to the roadways a challenge,” according to the study.

While Sonoma County has spent $112 million on roads in the past five years, that spending has centered almost exclusively on repairs rather than upgrades that would add capacity, such as adding shoulders or turn lanes, as suggested in the studies.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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