In October 2016, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution tasking the permit department to develop and implement protective guidelines, policies, and standards to address promotional events and overconcentration of tasting rooms in certain rural areas. Since that resolution, the board has delayed taking action to implement an effective and enforceable Winery Event Ordinance. However, Sonoma County officials continue to approve new winery and event center use permits, exacerbating the negative cumulative impacts they had committed to address.
The county has handed the responsibility for formulating these regulations off to the local vintners and residents to sort out. This approach raises serious issues.
In Dry Creek, for example, the voting structure of the committee that approves and implements the guidelines, gives wine industry representatives an effective veto of any meaningful standards or limitations that they don’t believe meet their interests.
While it may seem that the community wrote the Dry Creek guidelines, it’s only partially true. The reality is that the framework and definitions are directly from the Vintner organization’s proposals. Thus, the guidelines don’t solve the problems recognized by the supervisors; in fact, they increase entitlements to daily events and loosen standards for food service, increasing entitlements over what was approved by the county in the past.
Allowing unlimited numbers of certain types of events and daily food service, which has the potential to create de facto restaurants, will significantly increase visitation. Yet, no impact studies have been performed by the county, nor has there been consideration to increased traffic levels, impacts on surrounding properties and further commercialization of this very rural area.
In addition, there are no limitations on the total number of facilities in a given area. Sonoma and Healdsburg have both enacted limitations to the number of tasting rooms in their downtown areas to address overconcentration. As was the case with Sonoma and Healdsburg, without some defined standards in the areas currently concentrated, they become magnets for further development as business seeks to locate in such high visitation areas to promote their brand, further eroding rural character and exacerbating traffic and noise impacts.
The residents have respectfully requested observable and enforceable definitions, and protective standards drafted by Permit Sonoma with required hearings, including full representation by all the stakeholders. It’s the county’s responsibility to draft the guidelines that become regulations, enforceable by the county, rather than having an industry draft its own guidelines, with unenforceable definitions.
The problem with letting a community draft their own solutions process is that the county’s own general plan, zoning code and environmental protections are trumped by guidelines that increase the intensity of use drafted by wine industry members. The voting structure effectively silences neighbor’s legitimate requests for measures to protect their safety, water availability and quality of life, without the enforcement of the county.
Until recently, the staff of the Sonoma County planning department has worked to solicit input from stakeholder groups that included both resident groups and winery representatives. Between 2015 and 2016, the county held meetings with stakeholders, and had public workshops and briefings with county planning bodies and the board of supervisors. These efforts should continue. The county is the proper legislative body to address land-use conflicts and environmental issues, and while input from industry and neighborhood groups is important, it’s county officials who need to step up and get the job done.
In an overcrowded market, as each player competes for brand recognition and market share, we’ve seen an arms race for more customer experiences. The proliferation of uses that historically are permitted in towns, not agricultural areas, has resulted in more commercialization of agricultural lands. While some appear to suggest that parties and food service are agriculture, the Sonoma County general plan clearly states that visitor serving uses be limited in scale and intensity in agriculturally-zoned areas.
If done properly, we can have a thriving wine visitor industry that supports healthy agriculture in a way that preserves the very reason tourists come to Wine Country in the first place—rural character. That’s what good planning should be about.
The county is responsible to the entire community when it comes to safety, environmental and quality of life concerns. Turning the process over to industry-dominated committees to promulgate regulations is not fulfilling a proper governmental function.
Reuben Weinzveg is the treasurer for Preserve Rural Sonoma County. A retired CPA, he has served on the board of directors and finance committees of many community organizations, such as the Community Foundation Sonoma, Sonoma County Land Trust, Ceres Community Project and more.
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