Panel opts for tasting room rules
Should tasting rooms be regulated?
The Sonoma Planning Commission answered “yes” on Thursday, forwarding their recommendations to the City Council, which was scheduled to debate the issue last night. The results of that discussion came too late for press time.
Commissioners favored a use permit process for new tasting rooms, but declined to make it retroactive except in the case of a change or violation of an ABC license or expansion of the use. They also forwarded recommendations for “general operating standards,” including hours of operation, limitations on food service and pourings, and compliance with ABC regulations.
While supporting the guidelines, Commissioner Matthew Tippel said, “My concern is that retail space in the Plaza is being taken away.”
Other commissioners voiced concerns about the effect of tasting rooms on other businesses (especially parking), the concentration of alcohol-serving establishments and the impact on a “sense of community.”
“Wine is an integral part of our community,” said alternate commissioner Bill Willers. “But it can have a detrimental effect.” He acknowledged that other communities with similar concentrations have found ways to deal with negative issues.
Tasting rooms are considered retail, although charges for tastings are considered a fee and are not taxed. If a patron purchases a bottle of wine it is subject to sales tax, like all other retail sales. Information about taxes on wine ordered in town, but shipped from a warehouse (all of which are out of town), was not provided.
The commission began grappling with this issue in December, reviewing background information on wine tasting facilities, including their presence in the downtown. In recent years, a growing number of wineries have established a tasting presence on the Plaza, and more recently tasting rooms not affiliated with a particular winery have increased. Currently, 15 of the ground-floor businesses in the Plaza Retail Overlay Zone are tasting rooms, with four others having wine and other retail products.
Adding Roche, Hawkes, Walt, Three Sticks and JAQK (all of which are outside the Plaza Retail Zone), makes 24 such businesses operating or approved, not including restaurants and bars.
More are on the way.
The regulatory agency for all alcohol-serving businesses is the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), which has an elaborate formula for determining the type of license issued. Once a particular concentration of these types of businesses is reached, the chief of police must approve any new ones by issuing a letter of “public convenience and necessity.” But City Planner David Goodison, in his staff report, noted that it is very difficult to make findings under which the chief can legitimately deny a new business.
Police Chief Bret Sackett, in a letter attached to the staff report, asked the commission to help him better define the term “public convenience and necessity,” because he was concerned about the role alcohol plays in “a range of community problems, including driving under the influence, underage drinking and alcohol related crimes.”
Issues identified with tasting facilities include: concentration of alcohol-serving venues, parking challenges, tasting rooms that “morph” into higher uses and the effect of tasting rooms on the character of the downtown which, is becoming increasingly a tourist destination.
On the positive side, Laurie Decker, economic development coordinator, has pointed out that many tasting rooms are filling difficult-to-lease spaces and displacement of other retail businesses has been minimal.
The Planning Commission also discussed changes in parking regulations (another issue that was slated for the council meeting), but looked at possible changes in terms of the Development Code and how it should be revised to make it more up to date and efficient.
For example, charging stations for vehicles will be added along with guidelines for bicycle parking, valet parking, loading standards, new widths for spaces and the elimination of the “compact” space. The entire package will be sent to the council for review at a later date.