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Sonoma City Council left with sour taste over tasting-room embargo

Frustrations boiled over for the Sonoma City Council at its Monday meeting, when council members expressed dismay at the length of time it’s taken the city to establish rules regulating the number of wine tasting rooms in the Plaza area.

Or, as Councilmember David Cook put it: “(It’s frustrating) knowing that these urgency ordinances are in place just to kick the can down the road.”

Yet his vexation was of little consequence, as members voted 4-0 to extend the current moratorium placed last December on allowing new tasting rooms in the downtown for another seven months, giving city staff more time to formulate a possible permanent ordinance for council to consider. Councilmember Gary Edwards, who owns property in the downtown business district, was recused from the discussion.

According to a city survey conducted when the moratorium was first considered in October of 2017, of the 138 ground-floor businesses around the Plaza, 23 - or 17 percent - were at that time wine-tasting facilities. Another five were “in the process” and expected to open in the coming months. Another 10 tasting rooms were in operation around the broader Plaza area when the survey was conducted.

That number has proliferated since the recession ended in 2012 when there were 13 wine-tasting rooms on the Plaza. As the economy has improved in the past five years, tasting rooms of proliferated on the Plaza – partly due to larger wineries’ ability to pay the pricey downtown rents and partly due to wineries’ desire to sell directly to consumers and also enlist casual wine tasters to coveted wine clubs memberships.

The tasting-room moratorium was set to expire Sept. 30; however, city staff hasn’t yet developed a tasting-room-regulations report for the council to consider. According to City Manager Cathy Capriola, the combination of issues – including several unexpected issues coming before the City Council throughout the year and a depleted staff at City Hall -- lowered tasting rooms on the council’s list of its most pressing priorities.

Several members of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, a local nonprofit that promotes the Valley wine industry, were at the meeting to urge the council to drop the moratorium and hire the city staff required to draft a permanent ordinance.

Meanwhile, Sonoma resident, and candidate for City Council, Chris Petlock said the moratorium “creates uncertainty in the market.”

“We just want a decision,” said Petlock.

If the Council had not extended the moratorium on Monday, several available spaces on the Plaza – including those in such retail courts as the Mercato, El Paseo and several street-facing buildings – would be potential locations for new tasting rooms when the moratorium expired a week later.

Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti fumed about the prospect of continuing the moratorium.

“Here’s what people actually think out there: We can’t make a decision – we can’t,” said Agrimonti. “Everything’s a moratorium.”

Agrimonti proposed speeding up the process by hiring a consultant to develop a tasting-room ordinance.

“This will be something we won’t have to think about,” Agrimonti said about handing off the matter to a consultant. “It just needs to get moving.”

Councilmember Amy Harrington, however, said she wasn’t buying that type of council “self-flagellation.”

“Government doesn’t work that fast,” said Harrington, who cited several of the necessary “due process” steps and meetings about tasting rooms that had taken place over the year. “We need to get it done… (but) I don’t accept the criticism that it’s taken an inordinate amount of time.”

Councilmember Rachel Hundley agreed. “Government is slow and it’s better to do it correctly than to rush through it,” said Hundley.

But Cook echoed Agrimonti’s lament about the slow-moving process, noting that it took nearly a year to get the issue onto the council’s agenda in the first place.

“It’s frustrating, it’s costing people money (and) the residents uncertainty,” Cook said, adding that both those for and against more tasting rooms simply want the council to take action. “We haven’t done anything and I’m being asked to kick the can down the road (for another six months).”

But in the end, the four council members agreed with Harrington, who compared not voting to extend the moratorium to “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

“I’m so mad that this has taken so long that I’m going to dump all the work we’ve done the last year without putting an ordinance in place,” she said, voicing the illogic of the argument against the moratorium.

And the council voted 4-0 for the second extension of the urgency ordinance, to expire May 1.

In explaining her vote, Agrimonti said she felt “pressured” to extend the moratorium and was “not happy.”

“I will go for an extension of the moratorium,” said Agrimonti. “But I want people to know – this is (the city’s) dirty laundry. We are exposing that we don’t get stuff done.”

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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