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Opinion: Preserving Sonoma County's Rural Character


OPINION: Preserving Sonoma County's Rural Character

The continual flow of letters to the editors in all local publications shows how deeply the community cares about the need to preserve our agricultural landscapes and rural character. Yet, at the recent county-sponsored public workshop on winery expansion issues, the Sonoma County Vintners stated that they will oppose any effort to restrict or limit winery activities and events. Subsequently, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission urged their 1,800 members to write county officials with letters calling those who oppose any new limits on them, ‘liars and bullies.’

These statements stunned community groups who are working constructively with the County to develop balanced zoning standards that address local and cumulative impacts associated with the intensity, scale and concentration of visitor-serving and agricultural promotional activities, as required by the General Plan. 

Such negativity from the wine industry is an attempt to deflect the debate away from the real issues of the need for impact-based standards, mutual respect for neighbors and compliance with our laws. 

We are not the enemies of the wine industry. We are your neighbors and customers. Land use conflicts and impacts are real. The Board of Supervisors tasked the Permit Department to develop standards for promotional activities and events on Ag lands given the exponential growth of wineries and event centers has reached a tipping point. The General Plan evaluated the impact to Ag lands from winery and tasting room development based on only 239 facilities by 2020; yet, 436 facilities exist today with 60 applications in the pipeline. And, the shift in the business model to one reliant on high intensity hospitality uses and food service has compounded the impacts and land use conflicts, requiring the County to act. 

Preserve Rural Sonoma County supports a balanced, consistent development code that preserves rural lands and protects neighborhoods and communities from the impacts from hospitality and entertainment activities. It’s time to uphold, not undermine, the policies in our General Plan designed to steer tourism-related hospitality uses to our vibrant town centers and to preserve the integrity of our rural agricultural lands for future generations.

High impact hospitality uses, when sited in the wrong locations, have a negative impact on Sonoma County as a premier destination. Sonoma County has benefited from Napa’s over-development and its diminished tourist experience– let’s not make the same mistakes. In 2014, several national bicycle tour companies, who fill hotel rooms and restaurants mid-week, wrote to our County officials warning that the proliferation of more and more event-related traffic on narrow, winding country roads was creating road safety concerns. They said that they may have to curtail tours here, as they’ve already done in Napa, due to unacceptable traffic and safety conditions.

We support small farmers and family operations, yet the rights given through a use permit are passed on to new owners. We are concerned with the rate our family operations are selling to large corporations and out of state developers who may not share our values regarding the long-term stewardship of the land.  

Residents have every right to provide input on matters that affect our lives. Please make your voice heard by sending comments to, Director of the Permit & Resources Management Department, whose team is crafting protective standards and criteria now.

Padi Selwyn, Preserve Rural Sonoma County