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Two wine industry supporters wait their turn to speak at a forum held in Santa Rosa Monday.

Shirts vs stickers at planning meeting

More than 400 people packed the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa for a discussion about wineries Monday night, hosted by the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. The cumulative impact of wineries, event centers and tasting rooms has many riled about traffic, people driving after consuming alcohol and the rising number of tasting rooms. However, Sonoma County’s wine industry was well represented and a coordinated effort to boost turnout paid off.

The audience consisted of two main factions; those in support of the wine industry and the right to attract customers with events, and those speaking out against the wine industry’s impact on rural Sonoma County. Mass emails and other efforts resulted in hundreds of supporters from both sides arriving at the venue an hour or more before it began. Supporters of the industry wore green shirts while others wore stickers in support of preserving the “rural character” of Sonoma County. The green shirts handed out to vineyard and winery supporters touted the words “Sustainable,” “Then. Now. Forever,” on one side and “Proud to support Sonoma County Agriculture,” on the other while many on the other side wore stickers that read: “Let’s preserve rural Sonoma County.”

PRMD’s presentation indicated that Sonoma County’s wine industry is the largest sector of the county’s economy; 59,770 acres of vineyards attract $1.25 billion in wine-related tourism with an estimated $13.4 billion total impact on the economy. A $592 million crop value supports 54,000 jobs, according to county data.

The workshop sought input from the community on what changes should be made to the county General Plan governing agriculture and wineries. While all aspects of the wine industry were up for discussion, the effects of winery events was a common complaint. Patricia Selwyn, with the activist group Preserve Rural Sonoma County, demanded that PRMD strengthen regulations on winery events and enforce existing guidelines. “The industry had a chance to do this on their own and it failed. How many more chances do we need to give them before we are totally overrun with events?” said Selwyn. “The bottom line is that we want you to stop the ‘Napafication’ of Sonoma County.”

Winery operators, vineyard owners and others in the industry defended their right to engage in direct to consumer sales and emphasized a need to attract customers in a highly competitive marketplace.

The workshop ran over by more than 30 minutes with lines of dozens of people on both sides of the issue venting their concerns.

One fact upon which everyone agreed was a frustration over ambiguous rules and a lack of enforcement by the county. “The county has approached every single application as if it were the first one they’d ever seen,” said Ridgely Evers, owner at DaVero Farm and Winery in Healdsburg. A woman from Knights Valley spoke about a neighboring winery that has no permit to hold events but does anyway, with no repercussions.

The panel of PRMD staff members acknowledged the public outcry over the cumulative impact of 439 wineries and tasting rooms in Sonoma County. County Planner Traci Tesconi quoted Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” in describing the cumulative impact of wine events around the county, especially on weekends. Tesconi and other county planners with PRMD have, for the past six months, been meeting with members of the wine industry to hammer out rules that mitigate winery impacts and still allow wineries to operate successfully.

Policy proposals under consideration include linking the size of a winery to the size of events that can be held; small scale wineries would not be permitted to hold large scale events. A limit on the number of tasting rooms and a ban on new, standalone tasting rooms are also being considered. A limit on how late events can go into the evening is being considered.

While the proposed rules received little scrutiny, enforcement of the rules was called into question, as well as a lack of data to determine how policies should be implemented. “When Napa looked at these issues a few years ago they spent a lot of time measuring traffic and measuring impact. We have not done that; we have measured feelings. That’s why there are a lot of people here with stickers and green shirts on,” said John Azevedo, a wine grape grower and President of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

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