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Sonoma County Gazette
Winery as event center

OPINION: PRMD approves Winery Use-Permits that Urbanize Rural Areas

Jun 28, 2017


By Jaime Zukowski, Maacama Watershed Alliance

The Mission Statement of the Permit and Resource Management Department starts with “…serve the people of Sonoma County by providing a customer-focused process for the orderly development of real property” and ends with “develop and maintain standards that protect the health and safety of the public.”  It’s business first. Or, as PRMD’s new moniker “Permit Sonoma” suggests, permits first.

PRMD’s recommendations to approve more Winery Use-Permits on inherently dangerous roads (Westside Road and Sonoma Mt. Rd.) demonstrate they are putting the customer first.  That customer is the developer. After our county has approved well over 460 wineries, more than double the number the General Plan EIR considered the maximum to be permitted by 2020, the “Permit and Resource Management Department” leaves management of resources and health and safety for last.

With the Board of Supervisors’ policies that allow development of ag land with buildings that are retail stores and event facilities, PRMD is doing such a good job for their customer they are urbanizing rural areas and delivering de facto commercial zoning benefits to agriculturally-zoned land. What developer/investor would want to miss out on that? 

Applicants for today’s Winery Use-Permits are not farmers just wanting to process their agricultural product on-site, but wealthy investors capitalizing on Sonoma County’s expanded definition of “agricultural support uses” which has spurred the building of commercial real estate on farmland. Supervisors say they are told that wineries need commercial destination facilities to be competitive. What industry doesn’t press government for advantages?  The County’s overreach of zoning may benefit the wine industry (the largest contributor the local economy) in the short-term, but undermines keeping agricultural lands for the production of food and fiber, and threatens the resources on which a diverse agriculture depends. 

At the same time, their policies stimulate building in agricultural zones, Supervisors continue a phase-out of the Land Preservation Act program which gave property tax relief for farmers and ranchers to hold land in productive agriculture and resource conservation. Facilitating withdrawal from Williamson Act contracts while permitting destination centers in agricultural zones is transforming rural areas. Road maintenance, emergency, sheriff, fire, and other public service costs mount in order to serve locations not planned for commercial development.  Sonoma County’s incentive for more property taxes to pay for these added demands is to facilitate the “highest and best use of the land” – that is, to develop it under a Use Permit.  

PRMD recognizes wineries have significant impacts, on-site and off-site, and state law requires they be studied, avoided, and mitigated.  But, just as the decision-makers on the Board of Zoning Adjustments rely on the recommendations of Staff, so the staff relies on assessments by consultants hired directly by and for the developer to determine whether impacts of their discretionary project can be mitigated. These experts also serve their customer, the applicant. Their assessments are not impartial, nor are they actual impact studies. In Sonoma Co., Environmental Impact Studies for wineries are avoided at all costs. Despite excellent policies developed by Planning Staff to protect resources and health and safety, the public sees, project-by-project, that objective analysis of significant impacts and application or enforcement of protections are sorely lacking.

Amid the concern on winery “overconcentration” Supervisors appointed an advisory panel to recommend standards to address increasing conflicts in agricultural zones.  In the marginal water-availability zone of Knights Valley another Winery Use-Permit was recommended for approval that is also accessed by a substandard road and where illegal industry events were already advertised and held. There, 6 new wells and winery infrastructure were developed before California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, wholesale riparian removals violated local and state protections, the project’s downstream neighbors are suffering groundwater losses, and other agencies have found cumulative environmental impacts unsupportable.  When does Permit Sonoma consider a project unsupportable?

Now it doesn’t require an EIR to recognize that permitting commercial facilities in rural settings, away from public services that will bring large numbers of people over narrow, winding, shoulderless roads to drink alcohol, is a significant public safety impact. Sonoma County is gambling people won’t be hurt. 

Fortunately, the citizens on the Board of Zoning Adjustments are doing their job and pointing out the obvious:  some locations are just not right for commercial development


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