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Sonoma County wine industry seeks to sway county planners on land-use regulations

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Leaders of Sonoma County’s wine industry on Monday fired a new volley in the protracted, cyclical battle over the expansion of their industry, hosting political appointees and county staff for a “mobile educational workshop” in an effort to inject industry-friendly language into long-delayed land-use policy.

Sonoma County Vintners, an industry trade association, organized the unique public meeting of the county’s Planning Commission, with stops including a recently completed 24-person, dormitory-style farmworker residence near Cloverdale, MacRostie Winery Estate west of Healdsburg and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens north of Santa Rosa.

In Cloverdale, it was housing; at Kendall-Jackson, code enforcement. But the backdrop for the meeting was Permit Sonoma’s move to update an ordinance related to agricultural promotional activities — wine tastings and other events that fuel traffic and other impacts in rural areas.

Milan Nevajda, deputy director for Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning department, said the goal is to create an ordinance that balances the tension between what the industry needs and ensuring it can be a good neighbor.

The tension has existed for two decades, as hundreds of new wineries have come on line since the turn of the century, and the business model has shifted to seek more direct-to-consumer sales that have brought forth wine clubs, more tasting rooms and weddings and special, members-only dinners.

Opponents of that expansion have complained about the noise and the traffic, which they say detracts from the bucolic feel of the countryside.

“That’s been a perennial challenge in the county finding that comfort zone,” Nevajda said. “We’ve been going back, more than a decade now, trying to update that ordinance.”

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.

“We pushed it back from the board level,” board Chairman David Rabbitt said, adding that supervisors wanted local groups to figure out a solution and come up with a proposal. The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors will have to approve a change in ordinance, when one is recommended.

By August 2018, critics were already weary of the marathon process, asking supervisors to impose a moratorium on winery permits ahead of promised new regulations that still haven’t come.

Nevajda has been on the job six months, and he said he’d like to bring something forward as quickly as possible. But he’d like it to first come from three distinct stakeholder groups made up of residents and business interests from three key wine regions: Westside Road, Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley.

Nevajda said he’d like to hear from those groups first, even as work proceeds on the ordinance.

But the stakeholder group for Westside Road was only recently created, and PG&E planned power shut-offs have forced officials to cancel meetings.

The final product may look something like this: An application for a new winery goes through a local group and is reviewed using local guidelines. That local group provides a recommendation to the Planning Commission, and the Planning Commission makes a decision, with the Board of Supervisors and the courts ultimately given the final say.

Wineries and residents are eager to update the ordinance. One of the keys will be how winery events are defined, and whether wineries can get carve-outs for what they call “activities.” Rabbitt said he agrees with industry leaders that all sides need to be working from the same set of definitions.

“The issues that are coming before the Planning Commission, most recently about permitting new winery facilities or modifying old use permits,” said Mike Martini, a Sebastopol vintner, former Santa Rosa councilman and county planning commissioner who heads up an alliance of 20 deep-rooted family wineries. “They, in my view, have gotten bogged down. The one hotspot is this issue of activity/events.”

Wineries operate under a diverse set of regulations depending on when they were approved and where they are located. For many, their land-use permits detail how many events they can have while some are silent on the matter. As of August 2018, there were 447 wineries in the county, and 291 of those were allowed to host events, with 2,600 event days per year possible.

Martini said activities are directly related to winemaking, while events are not. For example, he would put wine lunches, after-hours dinners, release parties, tours and tastings in the “activities” section. Martini pointed to weddings or political fundraisers as clear “events.”

“If you walk away with anything at all, you need to understand you have an important role in all of our lives,” Martini said. “We hope that you understand what it is we’re trying to do, and build us a big enough box that we can actually operate within.”

Planning Commissioner Paula Cook, an appointee of Supervisor Shirlee Zane’s said she’s never attended a meeting like Monday’s. It’s good to hear from industry experts outside of a commission meeting, she said.

“If it’s education and not propaganda, it’s helpful,” Cook said.

She said county staff and commissioners took care to avoid any conflict of interest — cognizant of the optics that they were guests on a half-day tour put on by the county’s dominant industry.

“We have to be very mindful as appointees,” Cook said.

Commissioners rode just two per vehicle, and were instructed to talk only about “weather or our vacation,” Cook said.

A call Monday to Preserve Rural Sonoma County, which has called for tighter limits on winery development and activity, was not returned.

Rabbitt, whose district doesn’t take in any of the major wine hotspots in Sonoma County, said his major concern is to ensure the county doesn’t unnecessarily harm its signature industry.

Martini would agree.

“We need to preserve what makes Sonoma County so incredible, and that is, still, in the year 2019, an incredible agriculture economy,” Martini said.

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

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