Council to review tasting room rules
The Sonoma City Council will look at parking times at Monday’s meeting.
Despite the expression of frequent public concern that Sonoma’s historic Plaza is now awash in door-to-door wine tasting rooms, a report by Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison reveals that, out of 135 ground-floor businesses in the Plaza Retail Overlay Zone, 15 are purely wine-tasting enterprises and four are a combination of wine tasting and other retail business.
That ratio, reported Goodison’s study, results in a 15.5 percent slice of the retail Plaza pie for wine tasting. But, he also reported, when you add five other tasting rooms just outside the Plaza Retail Overlay Zone, that raises the number to 24, which represents 18.6 percent.
Under current language in the city’s development code, wine tasting is not listed as a specific use, but rather falls under the category of “general retail” and therefore has no other specific regulatory standard to meet, although tasting rooms, like all alcohol point of sale sites, are regulated by the State Office of Alcohol and Beverage Control.
Among issues posed by the increasing presence of tasting rooms is their potential adverse impact on the character of the Plaza, the danger that tasting rooms morph into de facto bars or taverns, the relationship between high-traffic tasting rooms and its impact on Plaza parking, and the proliferation of businesses that sell alcohol, with potential for increased incidence if drunk driving.
In response to that concern, Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett prepared a memo for the city, in which he noted that 56 percent of DUI arrests in town involve people who had their final drink at an ABC-licensed facility.
Sonoma, he said, has a higher number of off-sale alcohol establishments than recommended by criteria developed by the ABC.
New tasting rooms need an ABC license, preceded by a “Letter of Public Convenience or Necessity,” from the chief of police. Sackett reported that the term “public conveyance or necessity” is poorly defined by the ABC, but that he considers a variety of criteria in approving such a letter, including:
• The proposed use will not be detrimental to the character of immediate neighborhood.
• Proximity to sensitive land use issues.
• There are no conflicts with zoning regulations.
• The economic benefit outweighs the negative impacts to the community.
• The license will provide a needed service not currently being met in the community.
• Unique and unusual circumstances to justify a new retail alcohol outlet when there are already similar alcohol uses existing nearby (this is much more difficult to establish).
Sackett concluded that the city cannot rely on the ABC license process “to regulate wine tasting businesses without other local zoning regulations.”
Goodison’s memo outlines a variety of regulatory actions to further manage and control tasting rooms, including a variety of permit options and general operating standards.
The City Council will be asked to offer its insight and direction on the issue at its regular meeting on Monday, March 18.
Also on the council’s agenda will be consideration of a proposal to extend the downtown free parking period from two hours to three; a report on the Sonoma Tourism Improvement District; and discussion of the Sonoma County Water Agency’s new budget.
The City Council will meet in the Community Meeting Room, at 177 First St. W., at 6 p.m. The public is invited to attend.