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Tasting room embargo sours over recusals


The Sonoma City Council’s consideration Monday of a proposed moratorium on wine tasting rooms around the Sonoma Plaza soured quicker than an open bottle of pinot grigio, when two council members unexpectedly found themselves sitting on the sidelines after questions surfaced about their property interests in the affected area.

The Council was meeting on Oct. 2 to discuss placing an urgency moratorium upon the approval of any new wine tasting facilities in the downtown Plaza business district – an area that’s seen the number of tasting rooms more than double in the last five years, while many commercial rents have nearly tripled.

The rise in tasting rooms has been a hot topic in recent years, with some residents calling for limits on the touristy wine dens, and others saying the economic benefits to the city outweigh the loss of traditional retail that has taken place as part of the city’s decades-long evolution as a wine country mecca.

There are currently as many as 33 tasting rooms operating in the broader Plaza area, according to city staff; another five are in the process of opening.

An “urgency” moratorium – which expedites the process of enacting a temporary moratorium by weeks if not months – requires four votes from the City Council for approval.

But about two hours into the meeting – following testimony from a variety of residents as to the virtues and vices of copious cabernet near the commons – Councilmember Amy Harrington raised a question about whether fellow-councilmember Gary Edwards’ ownership of a building on First Street East – in the heart of the tasting-room-abundant downtown – would necessitate his recusal from deliberating or voting on the issue.

Edwards, who has previously voiced opposition to a moratorium, had just finished laying out his skepticism over regulating tasting rooms, when Harrington brought up his possible conflict of interest.

“It occurred to me that you own real property on the Plaza that would be affected by this ordinance and I was wondering if you’d be allowed to vote on this or not,” said Harrington, deferring to City Attorney Jeff Walter for advice.

Edwards initially protested, saying the property is in trust to his children. But then testily demurred, saying, “I understand that it’s still my property so if you don’t want me to vote on it, I’ll be happy not to.”

“I’m happy for you to vote, or not,” said Harrington. “It’s just a legal question... for the city attorney.”

City Attorney Walter asked Edwards if his property was located in the downtown Plaza retail district, a point to which Edwards confirmed.

“And,” urged Edwards, “while you’re looking that information up, the councilmember to my right here,” he said indicating Harrington, “she owns property within 500 feet of a tasting room.”

Harrington said her property was in the 200 block of East Napa Street, and wasn’t sure if it was within 500 feet of a tasting room – a distance which could also potentially raise conflict-of-interest questions with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state agency that enforces conflict-of-interest laws.

“If I am not allowed to vote on this matter, I’m happy not to vote on it. It’s not a personal attack,” said Harrington about the tit-for-tat. “It’s a question about the law: are you allowed to vote on it? It’s just a question.”

Following a five-minute break called for by Mayor Rachel Hundley, the council reconvened, sans the now-recused Edwards. That’s when City Attorney Walter recommended Harrington recuse herself as well.

With the Council down to three members, the possibility of fielding the four votes required to pass an urgency moratorium was nil. At that point the remaining council members agreed to table the moratorium discussion to an unspecified future meeting, dependent upon FPPC feedback as to whether Edwards and/or Harrington would have to abstain.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.