The St. Helena Planning Commission wants to hear more public input before considering changes to city regulations concerning wine tasting rooms, house sizes, and A-frame “sandwich board” signs.

All three topics came before the commission on Tuesday. Commissioners said they want to read more comprehensive staff reports and do as much as they can to get feedback from the public, especially regarding tasting rooms and the maximum size of houses in St. Helena’s medium-residential neighborhoods.

Commissioners are eager to reach out to citizens after they spent a large part of 2013 crafting new small winery regulations, with minimal public interest, only to have the council approve and then rescind the rules after an outpouring of community opposition.

Tasting rooms

The commission voted 3-2 to reject the last tasting room application that came before them in April. A majority of the commission cited concerns about the business’ lack of local ties and fears that the growing number of tasting rooms in St. Helena might be reaching a saturation point.

The city requires tasting rooms to pour wines made from 75 percent Napa Valley grapes, but the wine doesn’t have to be produced locally. On Tuesday commissioners said they might consider changing that.

Commissioner Matthew Heil said the commission also needs to talk about whether the city has too many tasting rooms.

“Where do we draw the line?” Heil asked, adding that citizens have also decried the number of art galleries and jewelry stores in St. Helena.

Another option would be to revoke a few tasting room use permits that have been awarded but never vested. The city has approved 19 tasting rooms since 2008, including six that haven’t opened and one that has already closed.

The city of Napa, which has about two dozen tasting rooms downtown, has also been debating the issue. Critics say tasting rooms gobble up commercial space that should go to local-serving businesses.

House sizes

The commission is also reevaluating the city’s regulations concerning the maximum size of houses on residential lots in medium-density neighborhoods. Commissioners started raising concerns because of a flurry of projects that involved demolishing an old house and building a bigger one, often for a part-time “second home” owner.

Some of the projects have drawn opposition from neighbors who say the new houses are out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood.

A few recent projects have been close to the maximum allowable lot coverage of 45 percent.

They’ve also pushed the limits of the maximum floor area ratio (FAR), which is set on a sliding scale depending on the size of the lot. The limit on lot coverage only looks at a house’s physical footprint, while the FAR takes into account square footage on multiple stories.

Lots smaller than 5,000 square feet don’t have a maximum FAR, allowing builders to design large two-story homes that are subject only to the 45 percent limit on lot coverage.

“We’re getting a lot of house on these smaller … medium-density lots,” Heil said.

Commissioner Bobbi Monnette said the commission should also consider changing the minimum densities in residential areas, but the rest of the commission said that’s a separate topic that should be tackled in conjunction with the update of the city’s Housing Element, which is a component of the General Plan.


The commission seemed least inclined to change the city’s regulations banning freestanding sandwich board signs.

Interim Planning Director Greg Desmond said the signs keep popping up, and he plans to send another letter warning business owners that illegal signs will be confiscated.

Monnette said the signs are “part of the charm of St. Helena,” but Commissioner Brian Russell called them “visual litter.”

Heil said there seems to be a 50-50 split between people who love sandwich boards and loathe them. If businesses want the city to change its sign ordinance, they should organize and tell the city exactly what they want, he said.

Clusters of directional signs would be another way of drawing people to businesses. Chamber of Commerce CEO Pam Simpson said the St. Helena Renaissance Committee has been debating the installation of directional signs, but hasn’t reached a consensus.


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