Regulation of Napa and Sonoma winery production and visitor growth enters new phase
Napa and Sonoma counties are closer to resolving some key issues that for years have been simmering and at time boiling over on how to regulate the growth of wine business operations.
While Sonoma County government is returning to consideration of what winery events are allowed in rural areas after three years of interruptions to manage recovery from massive wildfires and legalization of cannabis, Napa County has just entered its second year of ramped-up action on winery use permit violations and adjustments for how small wineries are handled.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 28 is set to get its second look at an ordinance that creates a new category of use permits for small wineries, streamlines how all winery permit applications are handled, and makes it easier for more production facilities to be built in the south valley industrial area.
The goal is to allow smaller-scale requests, called minor modifications, to be considered administratively, by county staff or zoning administrator, rather than discretionarily by the planning commission or the supervisors. Such requests include increasing employees by a few, upping allowed production by 10% or up to 30,000 gallons a year, adding covers over existing crush pads, installing electric vehicle charging stations, swapping out existing permanent wine storage tanks while keeping the same production level, changing days of operation yet leaving total visitation the same, and any use permit change in Napa Valley Business Park.
Because of public controversy over expansion of winery production and visitation, a number of permit applications have been kicked up to the Planning Commission for consideration. Environmental laws would still apply under the streamlining plan.
David Morrison, county planning director, told the supervisors Jan. 14 that winery permit requests heard before the planning commission can cost applicants as much as $100,000 and take up to 18 months, versus $500 and a month or two under the proposed procedural changes, according to the Napa Valley Register.
Napa Valley Vintners, a trade association representing 550 wineries, said progress toward tailoring the permitting process to the type and scale of the project is laudable.
“Napa County’s use permit process has been a source of frustration for applicants, staff and decision makers,” said Michelle Novi, associate director of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners. “The new streamlined process provides increased clarity on the overall process for modifying an existing permit and strikes the right balance of administrative review and business certainty while maintaining the necessary CEQA review.”
Some Napa County vintners feel left out of the county’s proposed small-winery policy. They are producers that make their wines at custom production facilities. While California’s licenses for alternating proprietor wine producers (type AP-02) allow for tastings at locations other than the production facility, the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance requires a winery for tasting operations in vineyards. That’s because an intent of the law is to protect the agricultural character of the valley, with the grape growing as primary focus of business operations in the agriculturally zoned areas.
“If you’re a small family winery and you meet the requirements to build a winery, then you need a big checkbook,” said George O’Meara, president of Save the Family Farms, a 3-year-old group of vintners with vineyards but not wineries. It can cost several million dollars to build a rural Napa County winery these days. “If you’re doing 1,000 to 2,000 cases of wine a year, we never found an economic model where you can recover the cost of that kind of investment.”
The group floated the idea to county planning staff of a “microwinery” category of use permits, starting with 200 gallons a year, allowed under a home occupation permit, up to 7,500 or 10,000 gallons annually, or a cap of about 3,100 cases a year.
Such a permit category was mentioned as an idea by planning department staff during an October progress update for the Napa County Board of Supervisors. Advocates of the idea plan to work with county staff to flesh out a policy proposal early this year.
One idea Save the Family Farms is floating about reducing traffic to tasting at microwinery sites is to give permit applicants incentives to consolidate car trips to the property, O’Meara said. One solution possibly could be for an applicant to have a designated pick-up location in a less traffic-stressed location then ferry tasters to the property in a van, rather than having each driving to the vineyard.
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