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