“Our government has the responsibility to protect public health and safety. The briefing from Staff side-stepped the long-awaited results of the 2017 cumulative impact studies, and quickly devolved into recommendations from the Supes that would result in rolling back long-standing protections for neighboring property owners.”
(rec-ap of the BOS meeting on May 19th when winery events was discussed. Many people who listened to the hearing contributed to the writing of the re-cap. Thanks to all who wrote letters! )
An Analysis of the Current Situation and Re-cap of the May 19th Board of Supervisors Hearing on Winery Events
The topic Sonoma County Supervisors most discussed at the hearing was opening all Ag land to events. It was unclear whether this is a short-term stimulus recommendation or a long-term policy; however, adding even more competition from agricultural endeavors, such as farm stands and cheese producers, will negatively impact struggling wineries and may exponentially increase land use conflicts.
Case in point: Currently, tasting rooms are struggling to differentiate themselves from 400 Sonoma County wineries, while competing with other wine regions. How will unregulated competition from 1000’s of additional venues stabilize our premier industry? Tourist industry experts warn against looking at top-line revenue while ignoring environmental and bottom-line costs. The fundamentals of too many venues for a limited number of customers has not changed; thus, doubling down on unregulated entertainment may have long term consequences.
Our government has the responsibility to protect public health and safety. The briefing from Staff side-stepped the long-awaited results of the 2017 cumulative impact studies, and quickly devolved into recommendations from the Supes that would result in rolling back long-standing protections for neighboring property owners.
For example, only a few large-acreage properties can meet General Plan noise thresholds, designed to contain the impacts of events. For years, outdoor amplified music has not been allowed in most Use Permits. Now, outdoor events on a greater number of parcels involve music, more neighbors will lose basic property rights. Hopkins questioned any need for amplified sound while promoting agriculture.
Some newspapers reported quotes that require context-setting to understand the underlying issues.
Some Supes opined that the question of the “commercialization of Ag land” was moot because farming is, of course, a commercial venture. The real issue is that many hospitality uses are rights limited to commercially zoned land; conferring these rights to an ag property increases that property’s value while degrading the value of adjacent properties.
Zane questioned why the Supes were even entertaining this issue as there had been only 14 complaints in the last three years. Gorin replied that neighbors have given up issuing complaints because the County has taken no action. The deeper issue is the push by industry representative to write definitions without observable criteria, effectively removing the ability to enforce permit limitations.
Gore framed the issue as “the right to farm.” He asked, “Basically, what part of ag promotion fits under our Right to Farm ordinance.” Currently, this ordinance only protects farmers from nuisance complaints only relating to farm operations necessary to produce animals and crops, except cannabis. Additional permits are required to cover rights to marketing, sales of products, hospitality uses and alcohol service.
Rabbitt said the County should do everything possible to help make the wineries succeed. Yet, his constituents include dairies that also want rights to alcohol-serving events.
Gorin noted the winery events issue has been unresolved for five years; yet recommended a pause. The pandemic has changed the economic landscape, and much more information is needed to understand how tourist-based economies will redefine themselves.
Gorin warned against having standards only for the three areas of concentration rather than the entire County because then wineries could set up shop right outside the boundary. She called this the ‘balloon effect.”
Gorin and Hopkins warned against mixing short and long-term strategies. And, it is important to note that May 19th was a discussion only; the Supes did not direct specific actions.
Core issues remain: Clarity around the definition of what is promotion of an ag product versus simply a rental of ag land for hospitality and entertainment. And, whether County officials will uphold protections in the zoning code designed to enable enforcement and provide equal rights for all landowners.