Public hearing scheduled on winery ordinance
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BY JULIE PHILLIPS RANDLES

A proposed moratorium on event permits at San Joaquin County wineries will be taken up by the county Planning Commission at a public hearing June 7. The proposed Title Text Amendment has sparked lots of discussion, letters to the editor and position statements from growers, winery owners, ag groups and even area city governments.

Trouble is, some of the coverage has been confusing, emotion-driven and, in some cases, outright inaccurate, according to Bruce Blodgett, executive director of San Joaquin Farm Bureau.

The proposed Title Text Amendment does not affect existing permitted wineries or off-site wine cellars with permitted marketing events. It does, however, state that existing wineries with marketing events cannot increase the number of events (concerts and weddings) or the number of attendees at those events.

The moratorium would remain in place until the full Development Title that impacts wineries is revised – a step that will occur after the county board of supervisors adopts a new general plan, likely in the spring of 2013. In the meantime, any winery may get permits for four special events each year.

The last revision to the winery ordinance took place in 2001, after 18 months of work and more than 40 changes, according to San Joaquin County Community Development Director Kerry Sullivan.

Sullivan acknowledged that the proposed moratorium has sparked a lot of interest. "It's an industry where there are passionate feelings on lots of different aspects and on different sides," she said.

A total of 26 of the 58 approved wineries in San Joaquin County have marketing plans which specify marketing events including fundraisers, parties, weddings and concerts. Industry-wide events such as vintners' dinners, wine club events, harvest celebrations and events for distributors or sales teams would not be impacted by the moratorium.

Blodgett said that the factual information related to the proposed moratorium and the winery ordinance in general has been lost in a wave of emotion. He said the focus should only be on what is actually spelled out on the front and back page of the winery ordinance.

"We have seen this thing blow up, and the focus should be on the factual aspects of what the moratorium will and will not do," Blodgett said. "This is about a winery ordinance. The purpose is to promote the development of a winery, not event centers. Events are accessory and subordinate to the use of that winery."

It's also important to note that new wineries can be built and open their tasting rooms under this temporary moratorium. It's the outside events and weddings that will be limited.

Bruce Fry, SJFB president and vice president of operations for Mohr-Fry Ranch, further explained SJFB's position, saying the organization is in support of a temporary moratorium, with the caveat that, in the long run, the issue is permanently addressed.

"There are various avenues to solve this issue," Fry said. "A moratorium on events for a short period of time puts a time-out in place. We need to do what's best for the community, for the county for wineries and for the industry."

Fry noted that a SJFB working group studied the issue for six months and provided a recommendation to the county more than a year ago. The working group was made up of Farm Bureau members, owners of various size wineries – including those that are primarily event- oriented – and growers. The group reviewed the entire existing winery ordinance and developed recommendations for changes.

He said those recommendations could be the starting point for future discussions.

The issue has essentially created two camps in the county – those who say some are using the winery ordinance to create event centers masquerading as wineries, and those who say blocking winery events would reduce property values, squelch job growth, decrease revenue to the county, reduce agri-tourism and restrict land use.

Many are claiming that weekly concerts and weddings are legitimate events for the wine business.

Fry said that the squelching business argument has holes in it. "If your whole business is based on events, you shouldn't be in the winery business. The purpose of having a winery is not to have wedding or concerts. Yes, you can do a limited amount of that, but that's not the purpose of the winery ordinance."

Randall Lange of Lange Twins Family Winery and Vineyards also supports the moratorium, a position he said has led to several pointed conversations recently.

The way he sees it, the issue is a proliferation of business people that are pulling winery permits and are using the established winery ordinance, but are fact event centers masquerading as wineries.

"If you are not a winery, but are using a winery ordinance to build an event center, you should not be able to do that," Lange said. "I think there are lots of people who are making this decision and are putting it in their marketing plans as an event center as much as a winery, and they use it to make a decision as to whether to build the winery in the first place. I'd say it has to work first as a winery."

He said events that qualify as winery marketing events are gatherings at which you present your wines to people who are interested in buying them. Weddings, concerts and other ticketed events are not designed to showcase wines.

Lange also has concerns regarding how the issue impacts the industry's Williamson Act status. "How and what does this do in the interpretation of the Williamson Act?" he asked.

Fry summed up SJFB's position by saying, "It carves out people who are serious about what they are doing from the people whose businesses are on the event side. This growth we've had is a good thing. If we have more event centers and the public starts complaining about it, it will hurt us. We need to solve it ourselves as agriculturalists, growers and winery owners."