Despite three years of work by planners to develop a new set of rules for building wineries in Santa Barbara County — a move prompted both by concerns over growth as well as lack of clarity for what was allowed under the existing ordinance — the sentiment of vintners over the process remains largely unchanged. The new rules will hamper the ability for Santa Barbara wine country to expand and evolve, they say, thereby making it even tougher to compete in an already cutthroat global market. Meanwhile, some wine country neighbors remain unsure whether the proposed rules will do enough to make sure traffic, drunk driving, and loud parties don’t become a regular part of their world.
These concerns and more will be aired once again next Thursday, June 25, at St. Marks-of-the-Valley Church in Los Olivos, where the County of Santa Barbara will hold a hearing focused solely on the impacts analyzed in an environmental report. The hope is to have the new rules — which establish a more rigid three tier system that uses property size and planted acreage to determine whether tasting rooms and special events are allowed — up for approval by the County Planning Commission this fall, followed shortly thereafter by the Board of Supervisors.
Those latter meetings are where arguments for and against specific parts of the revised ordinance will be fully entertained, but the vintners are already sharpening their points. “We’re concerned that there is not enough flexibility in the new tiers to adequately address the diversity of the different models for wine production and tasting rooms in the county,” said Morgen McLaughlin, head of Santa Barbara Vintners. Among other issues, her association is concerned that needing 40 acres or more to host special events and requiring wineries to use 20 percent or more of estate-grown fruit are unreasonable rules that will encourage would-be vintners to set up shop elsewhere.
As well, McLaughlin believes the rules will discourage existing wineries from evolving, for they would give up their grandfathered-in rights for visitors and events if they seek to change anything — that includes starting food service, which is proposed to be allowed for the first time. “It discourages property and production enhancements that you see in other regions,” said McLaughlin. “You’re incentivized to do nothing and keep everything the way it’s been since 1985.”