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Winery growth

Both Napa and Santa Barbara counties are confronting how wineries should be allowed to proliferate and operate in their agricultural regions.

Winery visitation is growing; residents complain about growing traffic, some vintners are afraid proposed solutions could hurt the wine industry – that sounds like a Napa County story.

But it’s not. Santa Barbara County is also in the midst of doing this particular bit of wine country soul-searching.

David Graves is among the Napans who want to learn more. He is co-founder of Saintsbury Winery in the Carneros region and a member of the Napa County Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee that is studying local winery growth issues.

“It just strikes me that it’s an interesting parallel to what we’re trying to do here,” Graves said.

He’s not yet certain what Napa can learn from the Santa Barbara experience. Graves views local traffic woes and other problems as being generated by factors that go beyond people visiting wineries.

Dan Mufson also sees value in looking at other wine regions such as Santa Barbara. He too is a member of the Napa County Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee and is chairman of the Vision 2050 coalition of local environmental and neighborhood groups.

Mufson described the negative effects too much tourism can have on once-quiet communities. Napa Valley already has huge corporations owning wineries and growing traffic. Vision 2050 members wonder if there’s still time to head off the consequences, he said.

“At some point, these places lose their original identities,” Mufson said.

Graves and Mufson bring distinctly different perspectives to the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee tasked with coming up with local winery growth proposals. Different perspectives are also on display in Santa Barbara County.

Santa Barbara County has 60 wineries, compared to roughly 400 in Napa County. The wine industry there has a $789 million annual economic impact, compared to the $13 billion impact claimed for Napa County in a 2012 study. Santa Barbara is beach country as well as wine country.

Still, Santa Barbara County also considers wineries primarily as places to make wine and is looking at when winery visitation crosses a line. It is in the midst of a four-year effort to update and clarify its 2004 Winery Ordinance.

The proposed Santa Barbary winery rule changes create a tiered structure to regulate winery operators. This system separates wineries by acreage, allowing those on larger parcels of agricultural land to host some special events with conditional use permits.

About 50 people filled Stacey’s Hall in Los Olivos last week for the latest hearing on the proposed rules and related draft environmental impact report. Some vintners said the changes could squeeze out smaller producers and discourage growth throughout Santa Barbara County.

“[The document] seems intent on slowing economic opportunity and sustainable job growth from an industry that is responsible, vibrant, self-policing and is the engine of charitable giving in the county,” Wes Hagen, a consulting winemaker at ThornHill Company said.

One Santa Barbara County winemaker called the ordinance “class warfare.”

“It’s impossible for someone with an average income of what a winemaker makes to buy property, make wine and not pay rent to somebody else and do it all themselves. You’re basically giving a hand-out to the rich people,” said Mike Roth, a Los Alamos winemaker.

But some residents living near wineries complain about increased traffic and noise from tourism. A county environmental study says winery economic and marketing trends have changed in recent years, creating a growing demand for winery tours, cooking classes and special events.

Santa Barbara County is exploring how to continue orderly winery development while recognizing industry trends, the draft environmental impact report said.

All of this is a broad-brush echo of what is happening in Napa County.

Napa County just might need all the perspective it can get. Graves said Napa faces what some planners call a “wicked” problem, not in terms of being evil, but in being unsuitable for conventional linear analysis and solution.

“We do not even agree on the same set of facts about underlying conditions of issues like traffic, let alone the framework in which we might analyze them, let alone synthesize a recommendation,” he wrote to his Agricultural Protection Advisory Commission colleagues in May.

The Napa County Agricultural Advisory Protection Commission is supposed to forward winery growth recommendations to the county Planning Commission by Sept. 2. As members look for answers, they can at least know they have company elsewhere in California.

{!—BC Emph—}(Harold Pierce of the Santa Maria Times contributed to this story)

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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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