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Petition calls on Sonoma County to stop new winery permits until events ordinance is passed

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More than 1,000 people are calling on Sonoma County to stop permitting new or expanded wineries until a long-awaited ordinance helping regulate events within the region’s signature industry is finally approved.

The ordinance has been on the horizon for years. It was proposed amid a groundswell of criticism from rural residents who say winery events have grown out of control, clogging rural roads and creating nuisances for neighbors as the number of wineries continues ticking upward, perhaps to points of overconcentration in some areas.

But the Board of Supervisors doesn’t plan to take up the issue again until early next year. The delay is largely due to the October wildfires, which have forced the county to focus mostly on disaster recovery and housing policy.

Critics say it’s inappropriate for the county to approve new winery permits in the meantime. A petition started by the group Preserve Rural Sonoma County has garnered 1,145 signatures and will be presented to supervisors today, said Padi Selwyn, the group’s co-chairwoman.

“There was a sense that the can keeps getting kicked down the road,” Selwyn said of the petition’s creation. “No one’s saying stop forever — we’re saying let’s hold off until there’s some standards.”

Supervisors in 2016 decided to start creating definitions of winery events and putting guidelines in place for some parts of the county where wineries and tasting rooms are most concentrated, namely Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and Sonoma Valley. The board is now scheduled to resume the policy debate sometime in the first three months of 2019.

The county currently has 467 wineries approved in the unincorporated areas. Since the start of 2017, another 19 winery land-use permits have started working their way through the county’s permitting process and three of them have been approved, according to a spokeswoman for the county permit department.

Selwyn doesn’t want supervisors to freeze winery permit applications that are already being processed, but rather bar any new ones from starting, she said.

“Some people have been working on things for years, and they’re already in the hopper,” she said. “We’re saying anything new that comes up, let’s just put it on hold until we’ve got these standards and guidelines.”

It’s not clear how much, if any, traction the petition will get among the five elected supervisors.

Supervisor James Gore, the current board chairman, said he doesn’t support the effort.

“I feel like, in a certain way, they are afraid their activism is losing ground to wildfire recovery and other issues, and so they’re trying to find a way to reignite,” he said of the petition advocates. “The priorities right now for our planning staff is to get people rebuilt and get people in housing.”

Permit Sonoma director Tennis Wick said his department has its hands full dealing with the fire recovery and cannabis issues. And some staff vacancies haven’t made the workload any easier, he said.

“We’re tapped,” Wick said. “What we have to deal with now is taxing us at maximum capacity.”

Gore, whose district includes popular winemaking areas such as the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys, doesn’t dispute the need for new winery-related policies.

“For me, the most important thing is to get clarity so that we’re all speaking the same language,” he said. “The second thing is to focus on local guidelines for areas with a lot of wineries.”

Gore said he also wants to help grape-growing areas remain agriculture-focused so they aren’t overwhelmed by too many events.

Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, said he’s “absolutely” opposed to the moratorium suggested by the petition, which he called “not very forward-thinking.” He said a ban on new winery permits could stifle employment opportunities, and he thinks every winery application deserves a fair vetting from the county.

But the industry is also interested in getting an ordinance in place, he said.

“Obviously, if you’re running a winery, you want to make sure you’re doing things right, and having no definition of what an event is or what business activity is, is a little confusing and difficult for our wineries,” Haney said. “We would like to see a set of definitions put in place that identifies that.”

The idea of barring new winery permits until the ordinance is passed has garnered support from neighborhood activists and some environmental groups, including Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Daisy Pistey-Lyhne, executive director of Conservation Action, said her group wants to hold supervisors accountable to policy assurances they made years ago.

“It’s time the supervisors take action and follow through on the promise they made before approving more developments that will bring traffic onto narrow roads with low maintenance and disturb the rural quality of life for neighbors,” she said.