By Barbara Barrielle
The ongoing struggle between wineries and Sonoma County to determine the future of permitting for winery activities and events is coming closer to conclusive guidelines. After years of research, lobbying, and discussions, a February 18th virtual conference and workshop brought 200 vintners, tasting room managers, hospitality professionals and community advocates together to discuss the future of permitting for winery events and operations.
Further comments were invited after the workshop, and a draft winery events ordinance is now going before the planning committee.
Vintners like Mike Martini of Taft Street Winery have been active in sharing concerns with the county. He says, “I have reviewed the latest draft, and it is under review by many people. At first blush, the draft is encouraging in that it is acknowledging that wineries are allowed as one of the three agricultural uses in the county.”
“There are business activities of a winery, and they should be mitigated by size. The primary issues are traffic, septic, parking, number of parking spaces, and noise. County noise ordinances are already in effect and are measured in decibels, sound level, and time of day. The other issues are important, but the county is still unclear on frequency of events and operations. For example, you don’t regulate a supermarket on whether they can do a taco Tuesday every week and need permits for that.”
Many vintners believe that a few bad actors have made winery events a target for county permitting ordinance change, but that wineries largely get along with their neighbors. “The real struggle is between people moving into a bucolic wine country setting and then realizing that there are necessary operations of a winery. They then complain about noise, dust, fans, and traffic in this agricultural area,” says Martini.
Three areas, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Westside Road, have been the targets of citizen groups that have been outspoken about preserving rural Sonoma County, which they point out as the reason they moved here. However, that argument ignores the role that wineries have played in preserving the agricultural character of the county instead of being urbanized like Silicon Valley or similarly developed areas.
Winemaker David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars, who grew up in the Santa Clara Valley, points out, “I watched that valley go from orchards to tech development. Yet, in Sonoma County with right-to-farm and open space ordinances, wine growing has been integral in preserving agriculture in its transition from apples and prunes to grapes in the evolution of farming.”
“Many well-known family wineries have grown other crops in the past and are now in the wine business. The Martinellis and Dutton had apples, the Mauritsons grew plums for prunes, and the Westside Farms ranch we are developing was originally purchased for farming in 1869.”
These and other families are dedicated to preserving farming in the county, but even as they are emerging from devastating wildfires and a pandemic that threatened their business model, they find new tensions building in their own neighborhoods.
To date, the Citizens Action Committee in Dry Creek Valley has worked with vintners on the terms of their coexistence, and another in Sonoma Valley is close to agreement. The real sticking point remains Westside Road where longtime resident and winemaker Ramey has faced controversy, lies, and incredible expense in bringing his Westside Road project online.
This highlights another issue facing wineries, the growing expense of winery permits. Mike Martini recalls his first winery permit in 1982 cost about $1,000 and took three weeks to complete. His renewal in 1990 cost $10,000 and took six months. David Ramey’s permitting process for Westside Road Farms has taken over four years and cost so much money that they are now raising funds to build the project.
Ben Neuman, oversight and compliance manager for Sonoma County Vintners, has been involved with permitting at the county level and now as a consultant for the vintners’ organization. He believes that the new draft ordinance is a reversal of how winery permitting has historically been done by Sonoma County.
“In short, the staff report reframes the historical application of the zoning regulations by stating that all events that occurred prior to the 1989 General Plan were unpermitted. I do not agree with this statement,” say Neuman.
“Just a few years ago the County considered participation in industry sponsored events to be inclusive of normal sales operations if the winery had a lawful tasting room open to the public, (as opposed to “by appointment only”) and participation complied with the operational conditions of their use permit. Since my retirement in late 2015, the county viewpoint has evolved to require explicit approval in a use permit to participate in industry sponsored events. This latest evolution is now included in the draft ordinance. The missing acknowledgement being that this requirement is a deviation from past practice.”
“Lastly, the county should recognize the evolutionary process that took place defining events and activities and provide a process for updating and clarifying grandfathered or vague use permits. Additionally, there should be an amnesty from the county applying potential civil penalties to modern era use permits that are considered non-compliant with the proposed events ordinance,” says Neuman.
Permit Sonoma staff will present the latest draft ordinance to the county Planning Commission on June 3rd at or after 1:50 p.m. The public can participate in the hearing through Zoom or by phone.