New winery tasting rooms proposed for downtown Sonoma will be subject to acquiring a use permit, the City Council advised Monday, adding a level of approval and public input currently lacking from the process.
The Council and Planning Commission met in a rare public study session to discuss recommendations developed by the commission regarding tasting rooms. That initial proposal, nearly a year in development, would limit the size and operating hours of any such businesses.
Capping the number of tasting rooms was never seriously considered, officials said. There are currently 29 tasting rooms in and around the Plaza. The number represents 17 percent of businesses within what the city calls the Plaza Overlay Zone.
“A cap is not in our purview,” said Planning Commissioner Matt Howarth. “We are focused on land use.”
Mayor Tom Rouse said the joint meeting was a timely public forum on the tasting room issue. “I hear people believe the town is being overrun.”
Several speakers disagreed. “There are more women’s clothing stores on the Plaza than tasting rooms,” said Danny Fay of Envolve Winery.
Richard Idell, a board member of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, said when he asked the Planning Commission what the specific problem was, “there’s no answer. There is no problem.”
Commissioner Gary Edwards said, “There may not be a problem, but there is an issue.” Councilmember Laurie Gallian was more direct. “If there wasn’t a problem, we wouldn’t be spending so much time on this.”
“It sounds like we’re an invasive species,” said Robert O’Maoilriain, who manages the Erik K. James Winery tasting room. “We’re already here. Winery producers are locals, too.”
Sonoma Police Chief Brett Sackett said he was concerned with the proliferation of establishments that sell alcohol. “The more opportunities, the bigger propensity for problems.” Though he did not cite any specific problems related to tasting rooms, Sacket said “our DUI’s are up, and our crime rate is up.”
“We can’t rely in the ABC to regulate,” Sackett said. “This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.” He is particularly concerned with a hybrid type of license that allows the pouring multiple beer and wine brands. Right now, there none of that type licenses are operating in downtown Sonoma.
The idea of letting the free market set the level of tasting rooms, through supply and demand, was mentioned by several officials and members of the public. The idea that tasting rooms rent space that would otherwise go vacant was also mentioned many times.
“I don’t believe the free market system will protect the fabric of the community,” said Councilmember Steve Barbose. “What happens while that all sorts out?” Tourism is important, Barbose said, “but we must have balance.”
Business owner Jeanette Fung said, “We are in danger of losing our retail diversity. It’s not good for anyone.”
In wining city approval, existing tasting rooms were treated like a retail business, and not subject to a use permit review. The City Council informally agreed to add that requirement.
“This is not an onerous process,” said Commissioner Bill Willers. “Almost all businesses go through it. It’s not a burden.”
Rouse agreed, admitting that he had changed his stance in this case regarding excess government regulation. The permit process allows for public input, he said. “It’s not an arduous process.”
The revised recommendations will next return directly to the City Council, which will likely also reduce the allowable size of new tasting rooms from the commission’s figure of 1,000 sq. ft. Commissioner Mathew Tippell said that number was arbitrary, “with no real science behind it.”
Read Larry Barnett’s column on tasting rooms.