While firefighters battled a third day of the Lake County inferno, at the fire station in Timber Cove, a public hearing ignited a firestorm of its own. Tuesday, Sept. 15, representatives from the county’s Permit & Resource Management Department (PRMD) came to this remote coastal area to present the Preliminary Draft of Sonoma County’s update to the Local Coastal Plan (LCP).

What lured over 100 residents to the meeting (with many peering in through open windows of the crowded firehouse) were the words “secondary and incidental,” a provision in the “agritourism” policy language that many residents fear will invite vineyard expansion and large winery event centers to their rural coast.

Agritourism includes the allowance of farms to build and operate commercial enterprises on otherwise agriculturally zoned properties. Proponents of such exemptions argue that agritourism provides farmers who struggle for economic viability an additional revenue source while connecting directly with consumers.

But, will agritourism remain “secondary and incidental” to agricultural production itself, or will the lure of event revenue change the business plans of farms and ranches?

“This is not about small-time farmers selling jam on the side of the road,” said Dennis Rosatti, Executive Director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, who attended the public meeting last Tuesday. “How can corporate events and big weddings justify agricultural promotion? The coast is simply too sensitive a place to accommodate an influx of development like that. Right now, we need to be extra mindful of added pressures on scarce natural resources like water.”

Sandi Potter, PRMD Planning Manager, told the crowd that the provision in question was consistent with what already exists in the LCP and that wineries would still be required to obtain approval for a use permit. The update, she said, is not meant to modify limits on development in any way. “The coastal zone only extends to the nearest ridge,” Potter said. Many of the concerns we’ve heard so far pertain to areas further inland that are and always have been under the jurisdiction of the (county) General Plan, not the Coastal Plan.”

But that didn’t quell the fears of many in the room. “Inland, back in Dry Creek Valley,” said county resident Lilly Berkeley, who drove over an hour to attend the meeting, “wineries claim to be little guys down on their luck and the next thing you know, they’re hosting 100 events per year. It always starts small, seems reasonable. But once they get a foothold, there’s no going back. The cumulative effect of dozens of wineries never ends up looking like what they’d first proposed.”

The entire coastal zone today contains just 2.5 acres of vineyards, two tasting rooms and no wineries. The purpose of the update, as stated by the PRMD, is to comply with the California Coastal Act, update official maps, assure public access, consolidate information into a single document and to address new conditions, such as climate change and sea level rise.

But climate change — along with an enduring drought — is exactly what concerns many residents. Neighbors to Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC), a public advocacy group opposing “the industrialization of agricultural lands,” suspects that rising global temperatures are making the coast — typically too cold for grapes — a target for speculation by those seeking the wine country of the future.

“In short, they’re saying the coast is no longer special,” declared former Sonoma County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter at last Tuesday’s meeting, “that we should apply all policies equally across the county. And if you grow half an acre of grapes here, the county says go ahead and build a castle to promote them. But it just won’t work here on the coast.”

Public comment on this draft of the LCP ends Sept, 30, though several stages in the overall process will also invite public comment, including when the proposal makes its way to the Board of Supervisors.

While controversy on the coast mounts, some suggest that many of the concerns expressed so far would be better directed at the Winery Working Group (WWG), stakeholders tasked with advising the county Board of Supervisors on the development of regulations and guidelines for winery related events and promotional activities countywide. To address the potential overconcentration of agritourism as well as the definition of secondary and incidental, Potter suggests residents look into the WWG and offer specific policy recommendations that would sustainably promote the bounty of Sonoma County.

To learn more about the Local Coastal Plan or offer public comment, visit www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/coastal

To learn more about the Winery Working Group, visit www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/win eryevents

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