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Sonoma County Limits on Wine Industry in the Works

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Sonoma County Limits on Wine Industry in the Works

By Padi Selwyn and Judith Olney, Co-chairs, Preserve Rural Sonoma County - preserveruralsonomacounty.org

Last month’s winery events study session by the Board of Supervisors was a step in the right direction, as local officials try to balance wine industry interests with a growing backlash by concerned citizens. 

Property owners expressed concerns that environmental degradation, unruly crowds, loud noise, traffic safety issues and congestion on narrow roads are destroying tranquil rural character and contributing to the Napafication of Sonoma County.

But it’s clear that this is going to be a long process, with new ordinances projected for by Spring 2017. There are many more meetings to be held, and input by the Planning Commission needed. 

Meanwhile, the wine industry continues lobbying for fewer restrictions, while the overflow crowd of concerned citizens in attendance sent a clear message to county officials that it’s time to rein in winery development and limit the number of promotional events.

As an example, the wine industry continues to advocate that the county categorize events by attendees or by sponsor. Unfortunately, merely labeling a dinner-dance as a “distributor meeting” does not reduce the noise, long duration drinking, or the potential of impaired drivers on rural one-lane roads. This re-naming of high impact promotional and hospitality uses – such as winemaker lunches or dinners – as “tasting room or business activities”, is a thinly veiled attempt to exempt these events, food service and accommodations from environmental review and use permit conditions required to reduce the impacts to less than significant. 

Plus, categorizing events by attendees impairs monitoring and enforcement.  What is the proposed Compliance Manager to do – check business cards?  “Sorry, not a dispute – the rock music and cars parked along your property line is an “activity,” not an “event!” Seriously?

There are 2,600 wine-related event days currently permitted each year in Sonoma County by only 139 wineries. In the Valley of the Moon alone, there are over 1,000 annual events with over 170,000 visitors. This does not include the many unpermitted events that are held year-round, county-wide or the number currently being approved through modifications to existing permits.

With 447 wineries and tasting rooms outside city limits with 60 more in the pipeline, we have reached a tipping point. Since 2000, there has been a 300% increase in the number of wineries built, exceeding the General Plan assumption of 239 wineries by 2020. 

The fact that the Board of Supervisors is finally addressing the impact of too many events and their negative impacts on rural character is certainly a positive beginning. But no one is talking about the elephant in the room – how can we stop the train-wreck of permitting more and more wineries with events that are paving over much more ag land than the General Plan assumed? And, the development of more and more wineries and event centers hurts existing businesses.

Now is the time to address the dis-economies of destructive competition before the impacts from over-development erode the rural charm that tourists crave - causing them to take their business to more charming and less commercial places. More is simply not sustainable. 

Wine industry expert and financier, Ron McMillan, challenges politicians, wine industry and community to come together and address the very real problems:  “ I believe tourists come to wine country because it is beautiful. Once they come to the wine country, the winery itself benefits from direct sales. If the wine country gets crowded and loses its charm – whether from locals or tourists – we will be killing the goose that lays the golden egg, so the focus for these issues should be on studies to get at the root of the problem.” 

Progress is being made, thanks to the many residents who have joined forces with Preserve Rural Sonoma County and other neighborhood groups to stand up and voice their opposition to the rampant growth and case by case permitting of ever-more projects, ignoring the cumulative impacts. The residents of this county are depending on our Supervisors to preserve the rural legacy that we all enjoy, for today and future generations.