Bad weather is usually the worst thing that vintners have to worry about in Santa Barbara County, but a decision last week to require full-scale environmental review for a proposed winery in Ballard Canyon is making some wonder whether the county’s planning department is putting a cork in the growth of the Santa Ynez Valley’s wine industry. So says vintner Michael Larner, whose plans for a winery on his 134-acre property — already home to some of the most coveted grenache and syrah vineyards in the state — were thwarted on December 3 when the county’s long range planning director Jeff Hunt determined that, due largely to the 20 special events proposed each year and a number of vocal opponents, the winery should produce an Environmental Impact Report.
Noting that he was “very disheartened” by the decision, Larner said that pursuing that level of review is “not economically viable for our family’s project, nor any agricultural business regardless of size.” Instead, Larner is going to resubmit his plans and remove the special events “in an effort to appease our neighbors without jeopardizing our family’s livelihood via an estate tasting room.”
Hunt, meanwhile, cautioned against reading too much into his decision, noting that it was a “procedural” issue and not a comment on the project itself. “The decision…was based on project-specific issues,” said Hunt. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that all winery applications will now require an Environmental Impact Report.”
Larner thinks otherwise. “We are just farmers and feel extorted when the county violates its own permitting ordinance precedent further compounded by instituting a de-facto moratorium on not just my winery, but anyone else in this process and the future,” he said. “It looks like the cost of business in Santa Barbara County has just gone up, since, after all, the wine industry is the only ‘growth’ in this recession.”