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Napa County is searching for that elusive, ideal formula to help it decide how many visitors proposed wineries might be allowed to entertain.

Winery visitation has become a controversial issue, with some residents saying that tourism is overshadowing agriculture and increasing traffic. Meanwhile, the wine industry says that direct-to-consumer marketing is becoming ever more important.

The county Planning Commission gets to decide how many by-appointment-only visitors proposed wineries can have. But as it careens from one winery controversy to another, it wants more guidance.

But finding a perfect formula that takes proposed winery information and then spits out visitor limitation numbers per day, week and year? That doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

“I don’t think we can find an air-tight panacea,” Planning Commissioner Michael Basayne said at a commission meeting.

Commissioner Anne Cottrell agreed. She’d settle for a formula that simply sheds more light on the situation.

“This kind of information is one more helpful piece, but it’s not an end point,” Cottrell said. “It’s a starting point.”

Take a proposed winery that wants to produce 100,000 gallons annually. One possible approach has the commission looking at median or average visitor limits for existing wineries in the same range.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison submitted a report with four pages of data taken from 477 wineries. The data is sliced-and-diced by wine production, location in the rural county, a city or the airport industrial area, whether wineries predate the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance and other factors.

Figuring out how to apply this data proved problematic, especially given that the data is incomplete. Planning officials said some wineries granted permits decades ago have vaguer visitor specifications than newer wineries.

Morrison also made a more modest proposal – allow a certain number of visitors per 1,000 gallons of wine produced.

Whatever method the county uses would yield a baseline visitation number for a proposed new winery. Commissioners could modify this number based on such factors as winery location, traffic levels on nearby roads and whether the winery would be certified Napa Green.

Establishing a standard is important, Morrison wrote. As it stands now, rural residents have no assurance that a million-gallon winery with 100,000 annual visitors won’t go in next to their home. Business owners seeking a winery use permit have no reasonable expectation they will obtain a visitation limit needed to see a return on their investments.

“Predictability and consistency are crucial to land-use policy,” Morrison wrote.

The Planning Commission has worked on its visitation formula since March 4. Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors on March 24 established the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC) to look at other winery growth issues, such as raising the 10-acre minimum parcel size.

But there is overlap. The APAC has considered limiting winery tasting room visitation and marketing visitation based on parcel size. Planning officials said the link is APAC recommendations will go to the Planning Commission and ultimately the Board of Supervisors.

Several audience members at Wednesday’s meeting addressed the Planning Commission on the visitation issue.

Lucio Perez of the Napa County Farm Bureau said the commission needs to do more than consider reducing visitation or events for some proposed wineries. There are some properties that shouldn’t have wineries because of various factors, he said.

“At some point, it’s OK to say ‘no,’” Perez said.

Rudy von Strasser said many pre-Winery Definition Ordinance wineries have large visitation numbers. There are plenty of places for visitors to go. Limiting new wineries to a few visitors doesn’t take traffic off the roads.

Von Strasser expressed concern that too-strict visitation limits could keep a new winery from being successful.

The Planning Commission will resume its visitation discussion on July 15.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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