Though there was seating for at least double the attendance, about 60 people — ranging from winemakers and associated business folks to those residents who live amidst the Santa Ynez Valley’s burgeoning wine country — showed up Thursday night at St. Mark’s in Los Olivos to get a rundown and offer feedback on the County of Santa Barbara’s first stab at revising the rules for getting future wineries permitted. Of the 17 public speakers, a little more than half spoke in favor of less onerous restrictions for the wine business while the rest issued concerns about how the current and likely continued proliferation of wineries, tasting rooms, and special events are putting a cramp on their rural lifestyles.
After some brief ground rules, the evening began with the county’s planning director, Glenn Russell, explaining how his department got involved in updating the existing ordinance (they were ordered to do so by the Board of Supervisors), what the goal was (to improve the efficiency and clarity of the permitting process for all involved), why that goal exists (because there are existing conflicts between wine industry and its neighbors), and what the timeline is (still very early in the process, with plenty of room for adjustments both major and minor).
Lead planner Stephanie Stark then outlined the initial concepts, which were based on the series of meetings that occurred from late 2012 to early 2013. Compared to the existing ordinance, the new rules would establish a four-tier system, allowing wineries that simply want to make wine without serving visitors the easiest path to approval but requiring increasing levels of vineyard acreage, annual production amount, and discretionary review (including an additional conditional use permit for special events) as the proposed projects get larger. There are also new allowances for food service, winery tours, and cooking classes being proposed, but the current concepts would dial back from 80 to 50 the number of allowed visitors before triggering a “special event” and make events end at 7 p.m., among other ideas that have vintners a bit riled up. (Also apparent on Thursday was that Stark’s planned leave of absence during this process, which triggered some grumbles from stakeholders who thought it was due to some “vacation,” is instead because of a baby on the way; she is quite obviously very pregnant.)
The tension that had existed in previous meetings between winemakers and the concerned neighbors was apparent on Thursday night, but seemed to be somewhat tempered from the past. Even Clos Pepe winemaker Wes Hagen, one of the louder pro-winery advocates in recent years, offered an olive branch of sorts. “We’re all neighbors and we’re all in this to make the county a better place,” he said, in thanking everyone for coming. But like the pro-wine industry speakers before and after him, Hagen expressed myriad concerns about how important the wine business is for Santa Barbara County and how critical on-site tastings open to the public are for winery success, especially here. “For me, tasting rooms are vital,” said Hagen. Also speaking out in favor of more flexible rules were people from industries, like food service and tourism, that also benefit from wine country growth.
On the other end of the spectrum were folks like Bob Field, who said that while he appreciated the county’s progress, he felt that, when it came to the two main neighborhood issues (whether wineries with tasting rooms/special events should exist in the valley’s more residential areas and why the wine tasting public shouldn’t be encouraged to drive on sub-standard rural roads), the draft concept “fails to resolve either issue.” One major way to address that, Field explained, would be to limit wineries to parcels that are 40 acres or larger; the proposed idea would allow wineries with tasting rooms and events on 10-acre parcels. Additionally, there were a number of comments and questions aimed at what control the county has over approving wineries in subdivisions that have their own private rules, and while the county said they have no jurisdiction over enforcing those, one homeowner association president, Don Gallagher, said that most rules like that don’t allow commercial use anyway.
The smaller than expected turnout on Thursday night was certainly due, in part, to the fact that the wine grape harvest has already begun on the Central Coast, making it harder for the wine industry to show up in force like they have at previous meetings. Based on those complaints, the county has moved the second hearing on these concepts, which was initially slated to be in September, to take place after the grape harvest is complete but before the holidays, so sometime in November.
Stay updated on that, and read more about all of the initial winery ordinance concepts, here.