City of Sonoma to limit Plaza tasting rooms to 25

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The number of wine-tasting rooms in downtown Sonoma will be limited to 25 – that is if the Sonoma City Council follows through on plans to place tighter reins on the number of wine dens allowed in the Plaza area.

The City Council voted 4-1 on Monday to proceed with a set of regulations recently recommended by the Sonoma Planning Commission for the establishment of a long-awaited wine ordinance. The council has been considering such an ordinance as part of an effort to curb the proliferation of wine-tasting businesses in the city center, a number which has more than doubled in the last five years. The council placed a moratorium on new tasting rooms in December of 2017; that ban expires May 1.

Among the regulations council members eyed in the March 18 meeting is capping the number of tasting rooms at 25. There are currently an estimated 34 wine rooms in the downtown area – all 34 would be grandfathered in under the new ordinance with the number lowered to 25 over time through attrition as tasting rooms go out of business or relocate from the downtown. Only two tasting rooms would be allowed along each “block face” in the downtown.

As part of the ordinance, the facilities in which the tasting rooms operate would be required to hold a “wine tasting use permit” issued by the city; if a permitted building did not have a tasting room in operation for a period of more than 60 days the facility would lose its permit.

Valley resident Fred Allebach applauded the limits during the public-comment period of the meeting, saying it’s not good for the city to have all its downtown economic “eggs in one basket.”

“It’s good the government is providing some limits as in incentive (for other businesses to operate on the Plaza),” said Allebach. “Because if something happens to grapes we’ll have something to fall back on.”

According to city staff, since 2012 the number of tasting rooms on the Plaza alone has increased from 17 to 26 – an uptick of 35 percent.

Local tasting-room skeptics have been lobbying the council since 2017 to take measures to mitigate the perceived imbalance in the downtown’s storied business district.

But Andriana Duckworth, speaking on behalf of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance, an advocacy group for the local wine industry, posited that “a handful of vocal residents are not reason to regulate and marginalize our industry.”

Duckworth, citing myriad economic benefits the wine industry brings, such as jobs and tourism tax revenue, said the city should instead, “look holistically at the Plaza’s business landscape rather than singling out a long-time partner that is important to the city’s success.”

Councilmember Rachel Hundley joined the majority of her colleagues on the dais in agreeing that limits on any one trade from dominating the downtown was a good step.

“This is a tiny piece in (the question) – what does a healthy downtown look like?” Hundley asked rhetorically.

Councilmember David Cook was the lone voice on the council against the ordinance, saying that “Whenever the government tries to regulate there’s all these problems that happen.”

“There’s going to be a lot of problems here and people could lose everything they have because of it,” said Cook.

Cook said he’d prefer the city instead offered a business license would that let tasting rooms split their facility space with retail businesses, allowing both to operate simultaneously, sharing resources and customers.

“I think that was too much common sense for (the council) to move forward with that,” poked Cook.

Cook said the tasting room limits would drive farm-to-table wineries out of the downtown.

“You could make your way all around (the Plaza) and you probably won’t find one wine in there that is farm-to-table because they’re big corporations,” said Cook.

Cook called for bringing the issue back to the ad hoc committee level, and adding him to the committee.

“What I’m talking about tonight could make or break Sonoma,” said Cook. “If we do this wrong, there could be a lot of bad things happening.”

Councilmember Logan Harvey, however, took exception to Cook’s assertion that corporations had pushed local wines off the Plaza.

“The vast majority of the producers on the Plaza are small families or small businesses, not connected to larger corporations,” said Harvey, before naming about 10 family-owned tasting rooms in the Plaza area. “We need to stop saying there are corporations who have come to take our town, because it’s just not factually correct.”

Harvey said it’s due to city regulations that the Sonoma Plaza has been protected from corporations.

“If the free market existed on the Plaza we would allow for Banana Republic and J Crew and McCaulou’s and Macy’s to go in there,” Harvey said, referring to the city’s ban on chain stores on the Plaza. “And I don’t know about you, David, but I would call the fact that we don’t have Banana Republics and J Crews on the Plaza good government regulation.”

Harvey said it “does kind of irk me” when Cook lambastes government regulation during council meetings.

“Because I’m very glad to know that my meat doesn’t have E. coli in it and I’m very glad to know that when I get on a plane it’s been checked to certain requirements,” continued Harvey. “And those are all regulations on business. So government has a role in regulation. Full stop.”

City staff expects to return to council April 1 with a second reading of the ordinance which, if approved, would go into effect 30 days after that.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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