The slow-simmering process to determine the future of Santa Barbara’s wine country was tossed in the frying pan on Thursday night at the Marriott in Buellton, when about 200 people gathered to learn about and comment on the County of Santa Barbara’s plan to overhaul the winery ordinance. Though many expected yet another feisty affair in what has become a testy relationship between the wine industry and a few of its neighbors — the county even planned for as much, with “ground rules” that included “no personal attacks” as one of many guidelines — there was very little rancor and name-calling.
Instead, amidst a who’s who of the county’s wine scene — from pioneers like Brooks Firestone to up-and-comers such as Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars — the hearing was more of a love-fest for the wine industry. Industry proponents, including numerous nonprofit directors, hotel representatives, and civic/business leaders from Lompoc, Buellton, and Solvang, dominated the meeting room, with the vast majority of those in attendance sporting “Wine = Jobs” stickers. Of the 43 people who spoke, more than 90 percent were in favor of existing or less regulations on the wine industry, with only three people expressing any desire for tighter permitting rules.
Although already discussed in smaller, private meetings held over the past year with various stakeholders, Thursday night was the first public hearing of the controversial update. In front of the room were six of the County Planning Department’s top brass, who explained that the update is likely to address six main issues: ordinance structure, tasting rooms, food service, special events, neighborhood compatibility, and enforcement/monitoring. In addition to those who spoke aloud, the county invited people to write their suggestions on Post-It notes and paste them on the walls under one of the six categories. Dozens did so.
Though some are interested in improving the ordinance to respond to changes in the business, most winemakers fear that any tightening of the rules could do significant damage to the still emerging industry. Many argued that the existing ordinance, which was drafted less than a decade ago, still works well and that this process will only serve to cost the cash-strapped county a lot of unnecessary time and money.
Those in favor of stricter regulations, meanwhile, say that the rise in tasting rooms and special events throughout the Santa Ynez Valley could lead to traffic problems, drunk drivers, and noise and light pollution at night, among other impacts.
After the hearing’s comments are collected and made public, the next step is for a series of topic-based meetings, scheduled to occur in November. The hope is that a new ordinance would be drafted by summer of 2013.