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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 12:32 pm | Fair 66º


Santa Barbara County Winery Ordinance Discussion Continued to September Hearing

Planning Commission weighs impact of updated ordinance, including restrictions on small wine producers' ability to open tasting rooms

The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission and most of the county’s winemakers and grape growers remain divided on the language in the proposed Winery Ordinance Update.

But during the latest public hearing Wednesday, several commissioners acknowledged that the Planning and Development Department’s suggested ordinance revisions would limit smaller producers’ ability to sell their wines directly to consumers.

The proposed rules wouldn't allow producers with less than 20 acres of planted vineyard to have a tasting room.

As it did during both the May and June hearings on the ordinance, the commission Wednesday declined to vote on the planning department’s revisions and Draft Final Environmental Impact Report. The issue will be heard again at a Sept. 19 hearing. 

Some commissioners voiced concerns about how new restrictions might impact the wine industry as a whole.

“We need to be helpful to the industry rather than putting up roadblocks,” said C. Michael Cooney, vice-chair and First District commissioner.

Daniel Blough, the Fifth District commissioner, cautioned planning staff members “not to create rules that don’t make sense.”

Both opponents and supporters of the revised ordinance filled the hearing room to near capacity Wednesday, with 32 people speaking during public comment.

Four speakers supported the proposed revisions to the ordinance, and the rest, all various members of the wine, wine law or tourism industry, voiced their opposition to what they termed excessive regulations.

With the proposed update to the county’s Winery Ordinance, the planning commission could eliminate “ambiguities and inadequacies” in the permitting process for wineries’ tasting rooms, the number of daily visitors allowed and special events including winemaker dinners, said Dianne Black, secretary to the commission.

The speakers who supported the proposed revisions to the ordinance targeted possible increases in DUI arrests or accidents, the number of attendees and noise at special events, and the rural roads that lead to potential tasting rooms, especially Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon roads.

“Ballard Canyon Road is dangerous already,” said Alan Davenport, a resident of the rural road. He shared a slideshow that featured several accidents, skid marks and photos of the road that winds from Buellton to Los Olivos.

Among those opposing the proposed updates were winemakers, grape growers, consultants and attorneys for the wine industry, as well as the directors of visitors bureaus for Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Buellton, the Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang. All noted how vital the wine industry is for Santa Barbara County’s tourism.

Nicholas Miller, vice president of sales and marketing for the Thornhill Companies, owner of Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards, multiple wine labels and two production facilities, spoke in favor of the family-owned wineries that provide “stewardship” for the county’s agricultural land.

“Are we going to support local wineries or allow in outsiders who are focused (only) on development?” he said.

Alterations to the proposed ordinance classify wineries by three tiers — A, B and C — that are based on planted vineyard acreage and case production.

The grape growers and winemakers present Wednesday — many of whom fall under the Tier A classification as smaller producers with less than 20 acres or no tasting room — said they believe they will go under if they are prohibited from selling their wines directly to the public via a tasting room.

Speakers also cautioned planners and the commission to take their time and research all possible solutions.

Dylan Johnson, an attorney for the wine industry, told the commissioners that should the updated ordinance be approved as is, “it will be one of the most restrictive in the state.”

Today’s winemakers have to work harder to sell more wine, said Rob McMillan, executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, based in St. Helena.

“Santa Barbara County wineries will not survive profitably without an increasing emphasis on direct-to-consumer sales,” McMillan said.

When it became clear that the commission would continue the discussion to seek more data before considering a vote, members of the wine industry expressed some relief.

Following the hearing, Matt Allen, another attorney who specializes in the wine industry, said that the commissioners appear to have “heard the industry and seem willing to make exceptions” as they continue to address the issue.

Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners, said that “Santa Barbara County is based on grassroots winemaking, and it’s nice to see that acknowledged.”

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

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