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County Planning Commission Delays Action On Winery Ordinance Update

For the second time in as many months, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission this week declined to vote on the Planning and Development Department’s winery ordinance update and the details discussed in the newly released draft final environmental impact report. 

After four-plus hours of discussion, public comment and deliberations, the Santa Barbara hearing was continued to Aug. 3, with commissioners urging the Planning Department to continue researching options outlined in the EIR.

The Aug. 3 hearing will also take place in Santa Barbara, Supervising Planner David Lackie said Thursday.

Since “there was a lot of information to consider” on Wednesday, the Planning and Development Department knew there was “a high likelihood we would need a third hearing.”

The 479-page EIR is available here

During the Planning Commission’s first look at the winery ordinance’s proposed changes on May 12 in Santa Maria, members refused to take action, noting they would wait for the release of the draft Environmental Impact Report. 

That EIR was made public online, and hard copies were given to commissioners, on June 1, Dianne Black, assistant planning director, explained.

Leading up to the hearing Wednesday were 15 different meetings with various groups, Lackie said.

“We held five topic-specific meetings, such as on food service and special events, and three community workshops to seek input," Lackie said. "These meetings’ input went into the EIR documentation.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, the commissioners, in particular Fifth District Commissioner Daniel Blough and Cecilia Brown, Second District commissioner, continued to question Lackie and other members of the Planning and Development Department. 

Their concerns and inquiries ranged from the methodology used to determine the number of per-day visitors allowed at tasting rooms, to the traffic studies conducted by the county’s Public Works Department on rural road safety, how to create permit conformity in existing wineries, and how winemakers’ special events should be factored into the ordinance itself.

After public comment closed but before the panel broke for lunch, Blough said, “It’s not likely we will get through this today.”

A key issue in the proposed ordinance update is the projected increase in traffic on the rural roads that lead to many wine-tasting locales within the county. Among these roads are Foxen Canyon, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon and Alisos Canyon.

William Robinson of the county’s Public Works Department’s Transportation Division detailed traffic research during the hearing. He noted that the department’s recent capacity and collision analyses determined that most area (rural) roadways could support an increase in traffic. 

Responding to safety concerns over likely heavier traffic volume, Robinson stated that “the roads in all of the (region’s) rural areas do not even come close to capacity.”

Nineteen people spoke during the public comment portion, all but one of them at the hearing itself.

Of the 19 speakers, 11 voiced opposition to the revised ordinance and the EIR, calling them restrictive against Santa Barbara County’s wine industry, especially the smaller producers, classified in the ordinance as Tier A, or those who do not own any vineyard acreage.

Among them was winemaker Seth Kunin, who does not own a vineyard but sources grapes from various other sites. He told the commissioners “the (proposed ordinance) limits would limit my success as a winery.”

While he voiced respect for the volume of work facing the commission, he also wondered “if the process itself perhaps needs more time?” 

Winemaker and speaker Michael Larner does own a vineyard, and said he has been thwarted by neighbors in his efforts to build a winery and tasting room on his property on Ballard Canyon Road because they are concerned about the potential increase in traffic on the winding, rural road.

In an e-mail following the hearing, Larner wrote that while he “appreciates all of the hard work county staff has employed in the revision to the (current) winery ordinance, it seems that staff’s pandering to the concerns of residents has come back to bite them, as eponymous 'alert' citizens picked apart the validity of the environmental work completed to date, and vintners sat there dumbfounded as commissioners’ words changed from 'streamlining or facilitating' to 'restrictions and moratoriums.'"

If the ordinance restricts tasting rooms to parcels 40 acres and more, it “would fiscally eliminate the possibility of family owned start-ups or young winemakers’ aspirations to leave their commercial city settings,” he wrote. “Clearly there is much more work to do to appease both sides.”

John Kochis, founder of several wine-related businesses, including Gemini Consulting, noted that because the county has restricted newer wineries to “congested” regions like Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone or the town of Los Olivos, visitors to the county “do not have enough vineyard experiences” such as those available in Paso Robles or Temecula. 

Others who voiced opposition during the hearing were wine industry attorneys and tourism specialists.

Several speakers are residents of rural Ballard Canyon, and voiced their support for the EIR’s restrictions on new wineries. 

Alan Davenport, who resides on Ballard Canyon Road, was quick to point out that he “loves Santa Barbara County wines” and has several friends who are winemakers, but expressed concern over “the safety of the road,” claiming that its “accidents and near-misses are higher than the state average.”

"Just because the road can handle more traffic doesn’t mean it’s prudent for us to do so,” he said.

“I’m against wine-tasting venues in general,” said Donald Gallagher, a longtime Santa Ynez resident, but added that he doesn’t take issue with “the growing of grapes, per se.” 

Despite their differing opinions, most of the speakers praised the commissioners and the Planning and Development Department for its years-long efforts to research, update and formalize guidelines and the permitting process for the county’s wine industry.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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