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Sonoma Wine Shop gets use permit


In a lengthy and complex meeting of the Planning Commission last Thursday, Sept. 14, one item breezed through with relatively little controversy: the approval of a use permit for a wine bar at 412 First St. E., the location of Sonoma Wine Shop.

Other agenda items evoked passionate arguments – a continuation of the disagreements from last month over the allowed pad size in the Hillside Residential district, an hour-long discussion of a draft vacation rental ordinance, and well over an hour given over to the housing and retail development proposed for Broadway and MacArthur.

Compared to those issues, granting a use permit to the Sonoma Wine Shop was a piece of cake, or glass of rose, and the discussion a virtual love-fest. Bryan Cooper, owner of the business since 2000, was applying for the permit to normalize the way the business has been operating since about 1976: as a wine bar or a small restaurant serving wine.

But last year the Sonoma Wine Shop lost its kitchen when they weren’t able to keep the kitchen space at 414B under the same lease (it’s now the Hare and the Hatter Sausage Emporium). The wine shop attempted to open a kitchen in its remaining footprint, and got a conditional Type 42 restaurant permit for such, but ran into some issues “which I’m not going into tonight because they’re very annoying,” said Cooper at the meeting.

The upshot was the 40-year-old business was forced to go through the permit process yet again to get a permanent Type 42 license. Still, though, there were few hurdles in the hearing – which ended with a 4-0 vote to give the business its use permit – several issues were raised that continue to irritate if not fester under the skin of Sonoma.

The first, of course, was the tasting room issue, which the City Council was to discuss at a scheduled “tasting room” study session Monday. Complaints about the plethora of tasting rooms around the Plaza continue and while the Sonoma Wine Shop’s permit may have looked like it was running into a buzz saw, it wasn’t. Per Planning Director David Goodison, tasting rooms are currently a permitted use under a business license, while wine bars and restaurants need to pass through the city permitting process.

On that front, it’s expected that the Development Code will be changed to require use permits for tasting rooms, allowing some civic oversight to the surplus of sauvignon-servers.

Another issue was parking. The use permit Cooper applied for included a parking exception – meaning essentially no parking spaces required for the 14-seat wine-tasting bar and six-seat sidewalk seating. Cooper requested the parking requirements be waived since the business had been there for 40 years, and Goodison readily agreed, calling the permit applicant essentially “a status-quo proposal.”

“We have to look at parking because it’s a use permit, and we have to go down the list of issues, and parking is one of them,” said Goodison.

Commissioner Jim Bohar mused what would happen if the use permit were denied because of the parking issue, and Cooper was quick to respond, “If we don’t get the exception, we’re closing the business. I’m firing people and shutting down.”

Noted Goodison, “It’s a parking exception, because this is a shopping complex without any parking. But we don’t believe this change of use that’s before the commission tonight will intensify the pattern of use that has occurred there during its history.”

For his part, Cooper indicated the problem was that employees of Plaza businesses were taking up the majority of parking slots on the Plaza, preventing potential customers from parking convenient to shopping. While he leases a single parking space in the lot behind El Paseo shopping complex, he asks his employees to park in the public lot behind the Barracks.

“We’re pretty insistent, because we lose a lot of business all the time,” he said.

In public comment, Logan Harvey observed that the reason employees parked on the Plaza was that there was not enough affordable housing in Sonoma, a leap of logic that added another divisive issue to the discussion.

Tasting rooms, public parking, and affordable housing: they were all there in the room, but when it came down to it, the Sonoma Wine Bar got its permit, and will continue its 40-year operation at 414 First St. E.

“We need to get re-opened, so that’s what we’ve done,” said Cooper.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.