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Winery events: Where to draw the line?


The issue of too many winery events – let alone too many wineries – continues to provoke differences of opinion, more so in certain parts of Sonoma County such as Kenwood, Glen Ellen and the southern end of Highway 121, than in more densely populated areas.

But, despite an ongoing review of the issues that started in June, there’s little evidence that a consensus is emerging among members of the 20-plus-member Winery Event Working Group – a committee made up of representatives from the public, winery and grape-growers and winery weary neighborhood associations.

Earlier this year the Permit and Resource Management Department, PRMD, convened the “Winery Event Working Group” to consider the issues and come to solutions – they’ve met six times since June to focus their concerns for eventual planning department regulations. Their work came to an end last week, with their final official meeting Nov. 4.

No public comment has been allowed at these working group meetings, although the meetings have been open to the public. But on Monday, Nov. 16, the public will finally have a chance to speak out on the pros, cons and possible restrictions to the many winery events that are uncorking across the county. The public workshop will start at 6:30 p.m., at the Glaser Center, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa.

“We don’t have an agenda yet, but we will review the General Plan policies, key issues and policy options, and areas of concentration, and open the forum for public input,” said Jennifer Barrett, deputy director of planning at PRMD.

A summary of those key issues and options can be found on the PRMD website at http://www.sonoma-county.org/prmd/docs/wineryevents/, including policy options for minimum site area, setbacks, tasting room limits, visitor hours, on-site food service, promotional activities, parking and others.

After six months of meetings, the lists of options for each of these policies only show a wide range – essentially, from “no restrictions” to “lots of restrictions” – without much in the way of consensus or recommendation.

Kathy Pons, currently president of the Valley of the Moon Alliance, has been on the working group roster, as have other neighborhood representatives from Westside Road and Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg both, like Sonoma Valley, prime winery event regions. Wineries and grape-grower associations are also represented.

“Mostly we’ve all just been giving comments to PRMD,” said Pons. “We didn’t come to any conclusions, basically, so it’s a bunch of options.” Pons thinks that the opinions expressed at next Monday’s meeting could be equally valuable. “That’s an important place for people to express the impacts that they’ve been facing, so the county knows that it’s not just a couple neighbors that are having a problem.”

One of the topics that is most controversial is the question of how to preserve the rural character of an agricultural region, while still allowing the businesses there to thrive. “We can all pretty much agree on that,” said Pons, but the devil is in the details.

For instance, more and more wineries are insisting on commercial-grade kitchens to prepare food not only for trade dinners and winemaker dinners for wine club members, but food service for the food-and-wine pairings that are increasingly popular.

“It specifically says in the General Plan that restaurants are not allowed on agricultural land,” said Pons. “It’s like finding where the line is to keep them from becoming restaurants, but also allow them to have some food preparation.”

Over-concentration of events in specific areas, or on given weekends, has also been a recurring issue. One proposed solution is an “events coordinator,” either within PRMD or for each of the key regions. Valerie Brown got some money for the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau to encourage wineries to post their events on a single calendar, with the idea being they could be tracked by PRMD to check for permit compliance.

“When people heard that, they decided not to post online,” said Pons. Nonetheless the SVVB calendar is well-stocked with listed events, though most of them at present seem to be arts, entertainment and culinary listings.

One byproduct of the working group’s monthly meetings is that citizen organizations in different parts of the county have been able to share notes and combine resources, such as the Preserve Rural Sonoma County group on Facebook.

They articulate their concerns that the county may adopt policies that intensify impacts by allowing event centers on narrow rural roads with inadequate emergency vehicle access, outdoor events on parcels with no winery or tasting room – or multiple tasting rooms on a single parcel – and dozens of events per facility for hundreds of people held after mandatory 5 p.m. tasting room hours.

Out of next Monday’s public workshop, the planning commission will meet in January to come up with proposed policy options, based on the workshop’s discussion and public input.

Though the original timeline indicated a March 2016 presentation to the Board of Supervisors on recommended changes, whether or not that date can be met remains to be seen.

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.