Healdsburg City Council is poised to limit the number, location of tasting rooms

The city is concerned that tasting rooms crowd out businesses that cater to locals and drive up rents downtown.|

Healdsburg, one of Wine Country’s most visited destinations, is dotted with tasting rooms. But now it looks like the city is saying “enough.”

With more than 30 tasting rooms downtown, most centered on or near the Healdsburg Plaza, the City Council is moving not only to limit their numbers but also to restrict the number of wine bars, craft beer and distillery tasting rooms.

The City Council on Monday unanimously agreed that such tasting rooms, regardless of the type of alcohol served, should be restricted to only one per downtown block face.

That’s been an informal guideline for 10 years, but not always adhered to. Now the City Council is agreeing that one per block-face should be more strictly enforced by spelling it out in an ordinance that will be brought forward at an upcoming meeting.

“There’s a feeling in the community we have an over-concentration of these establishments,” Mayor Shaun McCaffery said Tuesday.

“We’re not saying we don’t want tasting rooms. We’re just saying we don’t want them everywhere,” Vice Mayor Brigette Mansell said.

The move toward curtailing tasting rooms is not driven by a new Prohibitionist movement or problems like public intoxication, drunken driving or rowdy behavior.

Police officials say the tasting rooms have not been a significant source of trouble or arrests.

Rather, the city is concerned that tasting rooms crowd out businesses that cater to locals and drive up rents in downtown locations.

“Rents go up because it’s such a different model with tasting rooms than with ordinary retail,” resident Merrilyn Joyce told the City Council, adding that “every landowner” would love to have a use permit for a tasting room.

But the proliferation of tasting rooms is also prompting some reflection on the role that wine and alcohol play in Healdsburg’s identity.

“It’s something to think about with what our kids see when they walk around town, or when their parents come home,” resident Richard Berg told the council. “When do we have the conversation about a city that’s dependent upon alcohol for its economic well-being?”

The many tasting rooms also increase parking demand and create a noisy atmosphere that some decry.

“This issue of tasting rooms is a big deal with citizens,” said Warren Watkins, who heads up Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions. “It’s not just drunks. It’s loud, and people blocking sidewalks on weekends.”

Healdsburg is distinct from other cities in Sonoma County, Napa and Mendocino counties in that none of the other wine tourism destinations surveyed by Healdsburg planners have a cap on the number of facilities or require a certain distance between them.

But Healdsburg planning commissioners, who approve use permits, want to see a more steadfast rule.

“It’s time we should have an ordinance that makes it clear what the rules are throughout the town,” said Planning Chairman Phil Luks, who said dispersion of tasting rooms is a good idea.

“We are having lots of issues deciding whether rules should apply to tasting rooms, wine bars and tasting rooms that act like wine bars,” he said.

City officials say the growth in popularity of other alcoholic beverages means the city should be looking beyond regulating just wine tasting rooms.

Sonoma County produces “the best wine in the world, the best beer in the world and we are working on producing some of the best distilled spirits,” said McCaffery.

“You can’t compartmentalize the problem,” Mansell observed. “Alcohol is alcohol.”

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