A county study on the impacts of congestion, noise, safety and related issues linked to winery and rural tasting room and other special events, has taken so long that the original conditions and concerns that prompted the study in 2016 may now all be changing thanks to the potential post-pandemic business changes anticipated in the local wine industry.
A staff update held by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, May 19, was supposed to daylight potential guidelines and ordinances for better regulating winery visitor and tour groups impacts, while protecting the sense of rural character and atmosphere in areas such as Westside Road, Dry Creek and Sonoma valleys. Instead, board chair Susan Gorin declared a “pause” while everyone waits to see “how the (wine) industry re-emerges” after the COVID-19-related business shutdown. “We don’t know what visitors, or what new visitors, might come here,” said Gorin.
Winery tasting rooms, along with restaurants and breweries, only began to open for limited outdoor-only business at the end of last week, after being forced to close the previous 10 weeks by the public health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase.
Many wineries converted their retail sales efforts to shipping, pickup and online orders with some offering “virtual tastings” and other internet-based marketing ploys. Without wine sales to local restaurants, some larger wineries shifted more of their inventory sales to grocery stores and wholesale markets.
“It’s hard to predict future business,” said Gorin. “We don’t when people will want to travel here again. Maybe the wineries will just do more virtual tastings.”
The county appointed a Winery Event Working Group (WEWG) in December 2014 to look at the increasing number of rural wine tasting rooms, the increased number of direct marketing events, rural neighborhood compatibility in mostly agriculture zoned areas, and “commercialization” of farm lands.
In 2016, the working group told the supervisors that clear definitions of permitted uses and specific events for wineries were not clearly defined anywhere in the county’s General Plan or zoning codes. The supervisors ordered county planning staff and the Working Group to propose zoning code amendments and develop siting criteria and standards specific to the most impacted areas like Westside Road and the two rural valleys with sometimes narrow roadways.
Last week, Permit Sonoma chief Tennis Wick told his bosses that good progress on new guidelines had been advanced by involved stakeholders in all the impacted areas except Westside Road. He said the new target for presenting a complete set of new definitions and standards is now late spring 2021.
North county supervisor James Gore framed the question as a “right to farm” issue.
“We need to keep our agriculture industry viable and supported,” he said, while agreeing tighter definitions of what marketing activities should allowed in ag zoned lands. “Basically, what part of ag promotion fits under our Right to Farm ordinance,” he asked.
Lynda Hopkins, west county supervisor whose family grows grapes but does not own a winery, divided the issue into two parts.
“Obviously we have the COVID-19 recovery issue for our economy and all businesses, but I see the other piece that was pre-COVID.” She also endorses more clear definition of permitted activities on ag-zoned lands and at wineries. “Ag is commerce and we must keep it alive.” As an example she asked about the report’s references to amplified music at winery events and called for “sharp boundaries” around that.
“I agree to the right-to-farm aspect of this,” said supervisor Shirley Zane, “but what’s the problem we’re trying to fix? She said a right to farm must also mean a right to market while praising most wineries and their rural neighbors for cooperating and compromising in recent years.
There is no single type of zoning or use permit that all wineries or tasting rooms fit under in current General Plan and zoning rules. Winery permits include site specific limits for annual industry, wine club or special events. Visitor capacity is based on parking and access conditions and also on overall winery size by annual barrel or case production.
“We have the broad differences of having a large and popular Coppola (winery) right next to an off-ramp on Highway 101 and then we have smaller wineries at the end of very narrow roads like West Dry Creek,” said Gore.
He raised a concern about a “lack of consensus among Westside Road stakeholders, where there is a high concentration of wineries and tasting rooms on a 13-mile stretch of a narrow two-lane road which is also a very popular group bicycle tour and race destination. A 10-member Westside Road Stakeholders Group has been meeting since July 2019.