Planning commission working on new rules for Sonoma County winery events

On Thursday, the Sonoma County Planning Commission made progress finalizing new rules aimed at regulating wine events that have sparked disputes between neighborhood activists and the wine industry in recent years.

The panel revisited the project it originally considered last June and then again in February, in its quest to strike a balance between rural neighbors who complained about traffic and noise among wine tourists, against the industry local that supports the need for visitors.

But after five hours of debate, the commissioners said they realized they still had work to do and would meet again on June 7 to try to finish the proposal. The supervisory board is expected to consider the proposal on September 27.

The rules would only apply to new and modified event requests. According to county staff, there are more than 460 winery licenses in Sonoma County and about 60% have visitor components, such as tasting rooms.

Commissioners wrestled with lingering thorny questions, including what exactly falls under a wine event as opposed to traditional business activities for a wine tasting?

Members fought to try to establish a definition of an “agricultural promotion event” that would be perceived more favorably as opposed to events like concerts. These definitions would dictate regulations on when an event should take place, what catering service to offer, and other activities.

The five-hour debate has occasionally veered into whether yoga outings and painting classes at wineries should come under greater scrutiny as local industry lobbied against regulations strict.

Commissioner Shaun McCaffery noted that “virtually anything” that happens at a winery or vineyard could be considered an agricultural promotional event, but said the rules of the road could be helpful in ensuring wineries don’t not abuse the process.

“Agricultural promotional events are what we’re looking for because that’s what this land is zoned for,” said McCaffery, who represents the Alexander, Knights and Dry Creek Valley wine regions. “We don’t want weird things to happen there.”

The group’s working outline includes “agricultural promotion events” defined as events directly related to public education, sales and promotion of agricultural products to consumers that align with the overall plan of the county.

The committee has made some progress under the standards of the new policy in matters such as traffic management, food services and noise pollution, where it would provisionally require specific noise studies for compliance of large gatherings.

You can contact editor Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or [email protected] On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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