Winery events ordinance still a work in progress

By Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine, SoCoNews, June 11, 2021

There are wineries everywhere you turn in Sonoma County, and some neighbors say they're fed up with the traffic, noise and parking problems caused by winery events. (Photo by Laura Hagar Rush)

Sonoma County’s draft winery events ordinance is getting sent back for revisions. After receiving a winery events draft ordinance that Sonoma County planning commissioners felt was confusing and vague, the commission directed Permit Sonoma staff to return with revised definitions of winery events and activities.

In an effort to present a more uniform ordinance, the revised definitions will take into account the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission’s and the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council’s (DCVCA) ideas and definitions of what a winery event is.

While the aim of the draft ordinance is to set new standards regarding parking requirements, food service, traffic control, event coordination and noise management for winery events, it was unclear what types of winery activities would have to follow the standards set by the ordinance.

There was also a lot of head scratching when it came to figuring out what type of winery activities — such as pick up parties, release parties, winemaker dinners and weddings — are considered events and which are just part of normal winery activity and everyday business operations.

“I’d suggest that staff go back and re-look at all of the definitions and come back with a definition that is similar to or reflects what is in the Sonoma Valley local guidelines that has a threshold that triggers what is an event. Come back with revised definitions and then we can go through the standards at the next meeting,” said District 1 Planning Commissioner Greg Carr.

A speaker during the public hearing session on June 3, who identified himself as David Eckert from Zo Wines on Dry Creek Road, said creating solid definitions is key for this ordinance.

“Getting these definitions right is key. I put a lot of investment into the county, and I want to make sure I know what the rules are and what is doable with the rules that are established. Make sure these are measurable and that businesses can succeed,” Eckert said, noting that he was confused about the regional stakeholder citizen’s groups and how they have their own definitions of events and activities.

One winery chief operating officer said weddings should be specified whether they are an event under the proposed ordinance. He said weddings are his strongest tool in showing off and selling his wine and getting folks interested in coming back to visit.

There was also confusion from local winemakers and wineries that the proposed ordinance would affect their current permits and or prohibit them from what they’re allowed to do in terms of events and parties.

“How does this fit into the big picture here? Will they be superseded or overwritten by this? What about (permit) plans that are currently still in process? Will they be grandfathered or will they have to start all over in the permit process,” Eckert asked.

Kim Wallace, the owner of Dry Creek Vineyard, said that many family-owned wineries rely on direct-to-consumer sales through events like wine release parties and dinners and opined that limiting wineries on what they can do with certain standards and limitations may be the death of many wineries.

According to Permit Sonoma, if a winery has a grandfathered right for some sort of activity, then the ordinance would not affect that right, however, some older established wineries may be operating under the idea that they have a grandfathered right, but in reality, they do not have an official right.

“You don’t get affected if you have a grandfathered right. You may think you have a grandfather right, but you may not. That is where I think a lot of the concerns and confusion is being raised around grandfather rights. Scott (Orr) will work to determine what rights that operator has and that is subject to an appeal and can be brought to the commission,” Carr said.

Staff’s draft ordinance

What exactly is stipulated in the draft winery events ordinance?

Hannah Spencer, a supervisor planner with Permit Sonoma, provided an overview of the draft ordinance during the June 3 planning commission meeting.

“Staff has drafted a winery events ordinance that provides clarity and consistency to the permitting process for wineries and tasting rooms and helps to protect our agricultural lands and rural character by reducing event related impacts. The ordinance achieves these objectives by defining key terms, establishing operating standards and by distinguishing normal business activities from events. The winery standards would be used as evaluation criteria by Permit Sonoma and decision makers when considering applications for winery events and tasting rooms that are located in the three ag zoning districts, which are land intensive agriculture, land extensive agriculture and diverse agriculture,” Spencer said.

The ordinance does not apply to any property within the coastal zone.

“Conditions of approval have evolved over time with changes in industry needs and over concentration of visitors and community concerns,” Spencer said.

The draft ordinance includes operating standards for sizing, maximum hours of operation, parking requirements, clarification on food service limitations, standards of event coordination, traffic management and setbacks for noise reduction.

Wine pick up parties and food pairings would be part of normal business operations or winery activities.

An activity is one that has sales from normal hours of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and wine trade activities are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sale activities can include food and wine pairings and the sale of pre-packaged food and use of the site’s parking lot.

With winery events, like ag promotional events and industry wide events, would have certain hours and more regulations.

Ag promotional events could occur from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and can include food service and overflow parking but could only happen on a specific number of event days specified in the use permit. Industrywide events could occur from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and can include food service and overflow parking in some cases and would also be limited to the specific number of permitted events that is allowed.

Winery events would not be considered part of normal winery business operations

Event types include agricultural promotional events and industrywide events. Winery events would be required to provide an on-site event coordinator and send notices to neighbors informing them of the coordinator’s contact information when cases of complaints need to be addressed.

Traffic management and parking plans would also be required, and larger events would need to include provisions for addressing traffic delays. The last standard in the ordinance covers noise setbacks from the property line of nearby residences.

Noise reduction measures would be specific to certain projects and events, but such measures include side walls and relocating events away from the nearest residence.

Concerns and suggestions

Some residents were concerned that under the ordinance wineries with already established winery permits would be allowed to do more events and larger events than what they are already permitted to do, however, that is not the case.

“One of the things that I am recognizing from the concerned residents is this thought that the ordinance is going to automatically increase the ability for existing wineries to have more events or to have larger events or some larger impact on neighboring waterways, roadways and neighborhoods,” said District 3 Planning Commissioner Jacquelynne Ocaña.

Spencer said wineries with already established winery permits aren’t going to be allowed to do more events and larger than what they are already permitted to do.

Wendy Krupnick of the Community Alliance for Family Farmers said her main concern is with preserving usable agriculture land. She was also concerned with the citizen advisory groups and how they are just advisory and aren’t uniform.

Padi Selwyn of Preserve Rural Sonoma County recommended that additional sighting criteria be added to the ordinance and said she was rather alarmed that it is not in the draft ordinance.

To that end, District 5 Planning Commissioner Pamela Davis, who’s last day on the commission was June 3, advocated for a clearer ordinance and said she doesn’t support having events on agricultural land.

“I appreciate that there’s been a change in marketing needs for wineries and with the need for direct-to-consumer sales, I totally appreciate that, I agree that agriculture is a commercial enterprise, but I don’t think that having parties and special events is appropriate on ag lands and I feel like I have been pretty clear about that. I appreciate the ag community’s strong support for open space and ag lands. If we are going to have events and parties in places in ag lands then they should apply to have the zoning changed to visitor’s uses … The public pays the cost of the impacts whether there’s traffic, water use or sound and loss of access to other uses like bicycle conflicts,” Davis said.

She said if there’s going to be parties on agricultural land it should be near a main artery to reduce the impact on rural roads. She said there’s also been a lack of confidence in some of the CEQA, noise and traffic studies.

“I am of a mind to snug this up and I think the definitions are absolutely important,” David said.

Carr said he believes the scale and size of the events is the main issue for people.

“Here’s what I took from the workshop we had with 100 people, the most consistent thing that people said was the scale of the event,” he said.

District 4 Planning Commissioner Kevin Deas said he thinks the commission should be careful on how much regulation they create and in creating a scenario in which the county has become so regulatory.

“I want to protect small producers and allow them to get into the game or make a living so I like what Commision Carr said that minimum parcel size could be at the use permit level because a 28-acre parcel in Dry Creek Valley is going to be prohibitively expensive for almost anyone trying to start a winery. I don’t mind pick up parties, I think pick up parties that are happening during normal operation hours and if the site can handle what is happening, I don’t mind pick up parties. I’ve been in the valley during pick up parties and it doesn’t feel more congested than the other time,” Deas said.

He said wineries tend to take the heat for causing congestion, but he finds that bike events create the most congestion and are the most disruptive. He added that weddings and concerts and things like that should be separate from winemaker dinners and the like where you have to apply for a special permit.

Next steps

Earlier this year the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed the Sonoma County Planning Commission to come up with uniform definitions across the county on which activities are winery events and to set standards for those events.

“My first gut reaction is this isn’t accomplishing its goal,” said District 2 Planning Commissioner and commission chair, Todd Tamura. “If this is supposed to achieve clarity then it seems like the mission is not accomplished.”

As a result, commissioners unanimously decided that the item will return to the commission at a later date with a revised set of winery event and activity definitions.

To learn about the DCVCAC and to view past council meetings, visit: https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Dry-Creek-Valley-Citizens-Advisory-Council/.

To learn about the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission and to view past commission meetings,visit: https://sonomacity.civicweb.net/filepro/documents/5421

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