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Winery Event Centers - Two Sides to Every Story


Winery Event Centers - Two Sides to Every Story

By Vesta Copestakes
Just in case you haven’t been paying attention to this issue - here’s a brief synopsis. When Dairyman Winery decided to develop a large event center in the Greenbelt between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, it became a controversial development issue. Groups formed to fight the construction and quickly joined forces with other groups in a tri-county area of Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa Counties.

In the mean time, Sonoma County is in the process of examining our General Plan and Greenbelt policies regarding what existing rules have either been ignored, not enforced or worked-around legally. Closing those loopholes is a priority for people wanting to preserve our rural neighborhoods, protect our limited water resources and protect the rights of grape growers.

This subject remains complex in spite of the appearance of easy solutions. If you attended the Permit Resource Management Department (PRMD) Winery Working Group public hearing recently, you know the voices on both sides of the dilemma have valid reasons for their perspective.

Grape farmers see their land as providing income, jobs, taxes and open space that generates income for the county. They don’t want to see the open space filled with housing developments and shopping centers. Enough people got up to speak who had lived in San Jose when it became Silicon Valley to know that farm land can get quickly bulldozed into industrial complexes. What was once fertile soil growing food can’t even absorb rainwater any more. It’s a good scare tactic because no one in Sonoma County wants to become Silicon Valley any more than we want to become Napa Valley.

An administration nightmare

Many grape growers support the current land use policies but feel that they lack enforcement. They suggested a calendar that tracks events in an area to limit the number of large events scheduled on the same day or weekend in rural communities. With computer technology people assume this could be easy. Well, it’s not. Ask any calendar editor or event planner. This county is complex and large. Current staff at PRMD are not likely to be able to do this. It would take a new department and/or additional staff. And the suggestion that PRMD hire people to spend their weekends tracking down offenders to fine them is improbable.

Limiting events to a certain number of people also came up. Telling a winery they can’t have business meetings and conferences beyond a certain body count – not just events like weddings. Is PRMD supposed to cite and fine these wineries who exceed the number of people legally at a meeting or event? After the fact? Does PRMD have the authority to bust up a party or wedding and tell a third of the people to go home? Is the intent that events with 50 – 100 – 200 people be required to have a permit and register with PRMD so that they can determine if there are too many large events on one day, on one country road the solution?

Anyone can tell you that fines don’t stop people if they have money. Have you noticed how individuals and businesses simply pay higher water rates rather then let their lawns go dry during the drought? If you have money, the fine isn’t a motivator. Enforcement is a nice idea but unrealistic.

Rules and Regulations based on Reality

Some feel there needs to be rules set for urban areas and other rules for rural areas. This idea goes hand-in-hand with the concepts of sustainable growth, etc. Our Greenbelt policies are about to be reviewed as are our General Plan rules. This is the chance to tighten areas that were too loosely defined. Plan Bay Area 2040 – the 9 Bay Area County study, divides high density – medium density and rural areas into separate zones for regulating growth in a planned way. Perhaps Winery Event Centers could be regulated according to their location. 101 corridor properties vs. rural properties.

Sonoma Valley Hwy 12 corridor

In many ways this makes sense, but it can’t be just one side defining new rules without the consideration of the people who have to follow those rules. If you have not walked in the shoes of a farmer, how can you know how a rule that is created to curb a huge winery event center will impact a small-acreage grape grower? Talk to enough grape farmers and you know they have issues with the big guys as well, and will have even more issues if rules come down on their heads because their large neighbor is causing problems.

Is there a solution that serves everyone’s needs? Maybe. If there’s anything we all agree on it’s that no one wants San Jose in Santa Rosa. And very few if anyone wants Napa Valley in Sonoma County either. We value our open spaces and that includes rolling hills with grapes as much as public parks with hiking trails. What’s most important is that people educate themselves on this subject so their ignorance doesn’t put them in the position of being ignored. Please see LINKS below to county documents and information.

Napa Valley's high concentration of wineries

Read up on the Sonoma County General Plan 2020. Study the Open Space and Greenbelt rules and see where the two can fit together with our growing population, tourist industry, agricultural concerns and economic considerations. That’s a lot of factors to include in the equation. Add water and air quality and you have a real stew. This meal will take time to prepare and time to digest. But leaving it as it currently exists is more than likely not an option. Legal loopholes will need to be closed. Which ones and how that is fair to to all concerned is the challenge.

INFO: PRMD Winery Working Group

Improving Policies for Open Space in Sonoma County

Winery events concentration - Dry Creek Valley


winery event concentration Sonoma Valley