Santa Barbara vintners and their wine country neighbors remain in planning-process limbo, as the updated winery ordinance’s second public hearing before the County Planning Commission ended with commissioners sending the new rules back for further revision by staff. That’s also what happened during the July 22 hearing, and the next hearing is scheduled for September 19.
The winery ordinance update has been in the works for nearly five years, and the main points of contention remain almost exactly the same. Some wine country residents fear that unchecked growth will result in quality-of-life impacts, primarily in regard to traffic, road safety, and noise from special events. Vintners, meanwhile, appear to be unanimous in their belief that the new ordinance, as written, would greatly restrict the ability for new, particularly smaller wineries to be built and be successful.
Wednesday morning’s four-hour hearing featured 32 public speakers; 28 were pro-wine industry. The other four, Mary Beth Kerr, Bob Field, Alan Davenport, and attorney Ana Citrin, spoke to represent the concerns of neighbors, with a particular emphasis on the Ballard Canyon area, where one winery that’s open to the public exists and one has been seeking approval under the existing ordinance for more than five years. These neighborhood advocates contend that Ballard Canyon Road is wildly unsafe, with Davenport presenting a graph that showed an uptick in crashes from 2012 to 2015. “I believe our concerns regarding noise and the roads and traffic safety are not being given priority,” said Kerr. “That, quite frankly, scares me.” She read off the names of four people who have died on nearby roads in recent years — none of which had any connection to wineries or tasting rooms — and cited some “undocumented crashes,” as well.
Yet before the public comments even began, the county’s transportation planning supervisor, Will Robertson, headed off those concerns with his official analysis of accidents in Ballard Canyon, contending, “That’s not something we find on Ballard Canyon Road. There is no demonstrable pattern of horses being injured, of pedestrians being injured, or of cyclists being injured.” Field claimed that sort of denial would only get the county in trouble.
All 28 of the remaining public speakers, ranging from vintners and their lawyers to tour operators to representatives of every visitors bureau in the region, were heavily in favor of wineries and for encouraging their development. Their emphasis was squarely on the smaller vintner, whom they say would never be able to be successful given the current ordinance’s requirements. Specifically prohibitive would be the amount of vineyard acreage required for the smaller-tier wineries and what would essentially be a ban on tasting rooms for these boutique vintners.
“Young people are making the best quality wines in the world from small lots, and they need access to consumers,” said regional pioneer Richard Sanford.
The result, said many speakers, is that the small producers that dominate the Santa Barbara wine country landscape would be forced to sell to the large conglomerates that would export grapes from the county and have little concern for preserving the landscape and supporting the community at large. “We’re not targeting local restaurants to be replaced by Applebee’s,” said Nicholas Miller, whose family owns Bien Nacido Vineyards. “That’s not the identity of what Santa Barbara County is.”
Aside from the usual arguments — although this time delivered by a wider range of voices including many younger vintners — the hearing also revealed more about how each commissioner stood on the issues. Both Marell Brooks and Cecilia Brown expressed concerns over the traffic, road safety, and other impacts, while commissioners Daniel Blough, Larry Ferini, and Michael Cooney seemed much more interested in accommodating those younger wineries. As such, staff was directed to return with a new option for smaller wineries to have a tasting room, perhaps with reduced required acreage amounts, as well.