ST. HELENA — The St. Helena City Council is close to approving an ordinance relaxing restrictions on ag-zoned wineries in the city limits.
The council voted 4-1 Tuesday to introduce the ordinance and waive its first reading. When the regulations come up for formal adoption at the council’s Jan. 14 meeting, the council can still make cosmetic adjustments, but any major changes will require reintroduction of the ordinance.
Drafted by members of the Planning Commission and drawing little public opposition, the new rules would eliminate the requirement that ag-zoned wineries be subordinate to residential use.
Details such as the number of allowable marketing events would be decided on a case-by-case basis as applicants come to the Planning Commission for a use permit.
Grape sourcing limitations set a de facto limit on the size of each winery. Half of the wine produced at each winery must come from grapes grown on the same parcel or on contiguous parcels owned or controlled by the winery owner. At least 85 percent of the wine produced, sold and tasted at the winery must be grown in Napa County.
After a few small wineries successfully applied for use permit modifications expanding public events, the City Council and Planning Commission decided new regulations were needed to recognize small wineries’ increasing dependence on direct sales and face-to-face marketing.
Ag-zoned parcels of five acres or greater could be eligible for a winery under the new rules.
Marketing events, tours and tastings would only be allowed if the Planning Commission finds they won’t have a significant impact on neighbors in terms of noise, traffic, parking, dust, litter, security and other factors. The visual impact of winery buildings must be mitigated with setbacks or screening, such as landscaping.
The council will revisit the ordinance after one year and change it, if necessary.
Councilmember Sharon Crull cast the sole vote against the ordinance. She’d refrained from commenting publicly after someone questioned whether she had a conflict of interest, but decided to weigh in after City Attorney Tom Brown said her ownership of a winery outside the city limits doesn’t create a conflict.
Crull questioned whether citizens realize what a major policy shift the new rules represent. She proposed a cap on marketing events and said doing away with the residential requirement could “open the floodgates” to corporate-owned wineries setting up shop next to residential neighborhoods.
Crull said the ordinance should be more specific, instead of giving the Planning Commission a lot of discretion when crafting use permits.
“Discretion equals conflict, and we don’t need to have more conflict in this town,” she said, adding that “who knows who’s going to be on the Planning Commission or the City Council 25 years from now?”
Crull supported a compromise proposed by Councilmember Greg Pitts that would have kept the residential requirement on all parcels except those along Highway 29, but allowed the Planning Commission to waive it on a case-by-case basis. The other three councilmembers agreed to do away with the residential requirement altogether.
Councilmember Peter White said the council was making the right call by keeping the ordinance broad and leaving the details to the use permit process, when neighbors can have their say about each winery’s potential impact.
“The language that we have here currently gives the Planning Commission and our citizens the leeway to be able to craft a good … use permit,” White said.