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Supervisors Postpone Vote on Santa Barbara County Winery Ordinance Update

County will hold special meeting Nov. 22 to get more input from local vintners on the proposed changes

Larry Schaffer, owner/winemaker of Tercero Wines, and Wes Hagen, winemaker and brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines, confer before the winery ordinance hearing Tuesday in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
Larry Schaffer, owner/winemaker of Tercero Wines, and Wes Hagen, winemaker and brand ambassador for J. Wilkes Wines, confer before the winery ordinance hearing Tuesday in Santa Maria. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday afternoon opted to postpone a vote on the updated winery ordinance, instead deciding to get additional input from the county’s largest vintners association in a special hearing on Nov. 22.

The proposed ordinance includes updates and changes to the county's permitting process for winery tasting rooms, the number of daily visitors allowed, and special events rules. 

Morgen McLaughlin, director of Santa Barbara Vintners, voiced relief at the board's decision to get more input. 

“I think we are satisfied with the opportunity to have continued dialogue, and we might be able to come to an agreement for a “tweaked” ordinance for all stakeholders, but would also like an opportunity for a task force,” she said after the meeting.

The supervisors will also consider forming a task force at the special meeting, which McLaughlin said could include representatives from the wine and tourism industries, the environmental community and transportation groups. 

Supervisors decided to delay a final decision on the ordinance after a two-and-a-half-hour hearing Tuesday on the proposed updates to the existing ordinance, which has been in effect since 2004. 

Toward the hearing’s end, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal observed a “disconnect” between what the wine industry and the county hoped to achieve with the new ordinance. He said he would defer to Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr on how best to move forward.

“We do need to outline a next good step,” he said.

Farr, in whose district most of the rural Santa Ynez Valley winery properties are located, noted that the wine industry faces unique zoning challenges because it utilizes several zoning categories: agricultural for vineyards, industrial for wineries and commercial for tasting rooms.

Members of the Santa Barbara County wine industry packed the board hearing room Tuesday at the Santa Maria Board of Supervisors’ meeting to discuss the proposed winery ordinance update. Click to view larger
Members of the Santa Barbara County wine industry packed the board hearing room Tuesday at the Santa Maria Board of Supervisors’ meeting to discuss the proposed winery ordinance update.  (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

Among the points of key interest to the wine industry are getting “winery events” defined in the ordinance, understanding the type of allowable events, “protections” for any grandfathered winery properties, defining vineyard tours and limits on the number of visitors to any winery, McLaughlin said.

The decree before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday followed the county Planning Commission’s 4-1 vote on Sept. 19 in favor of updates compiled after nearly five years of workshops and public input solicited by the Planning and Development Department.

The goal in updating the ordinance, according to the department, is to promote “efficiency and clarity” in permitting of wineries and regulations regarding the number of tasting room visitors and special events at wineries, among other guidelines.

As they did during Planning Department hearings in May, June, July and September, members of county’s wine industry passionately spoke against the proposed ordinance on Tuesday, calling the document flawed, extreme, short on “understanding what our industry is about,” and prohibitive to young people hoping to launch winemaking careers.

For an updated ordinance, “members of the industry need to have their say,” said Chip Wullbrandt, an attorney who represents several wineries, among them Jonata Wines and Jackson Family Wines.

During Tuesday's meeting, many speakers praised the wine industry for the thousands of tourists it lures to Santa Barbara County each year, but cautioned that if the updated ordinance is enacted, the region would lose visitors to neighboring San Luis Obispo County.

Speaker Amy Fletcher, who described herself as a 15-year employee of the local wine industry, said that “winery employees sell this county” to visitors.

— 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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