As wineries have proliferated among the rolling hills and valleys of Santa Barbara County over the last decade, so have the concerns of some residents about the impact on their rural-neighborhood lifestyle.
“Our issue is the commercial use,” said Cerene St. John, who has lived for 11 years on the narrow Ballard Canyon Road, which winds from Highway 246 just east of Buellton to Los Olivos and Highway 154.
“We already have the Rusack winery that’s been there for a long time. It’s been a good neighbor. To add any more wine tasting or special events on the road really is frightening to us,” she said.
In addition to the traffic and noise associated with tasting rooms and winery events such as weddings and fundraisers, St. John said, some residents in Ballard Canyon worry about safety on the narrow road, which is not striped and is used by many people for running and cycling.
Her concerns are among those being raised by a relatively small but vocal number of county residents, primarily in the Santa Ynez Valley, who are becoming an increasingly large obstacle for wineries that are trying to get county approval for tasting rooms or other special events that vintners say are important to their economic survival.
Winemaker Michael Larner, who owns Larner Vineyard & Winery on Ballard Canyon Road, said he believes wineries are being singled out unfairly.
“We’re all trying to be good neighbors, but it’s a two-way street,” said
Larner, who started planting grapes on the family’s 133 acres with his father in 1999, and has been trying to get a permit for a tasting room and winery on 34 acres of his property since 2009.
“It’s really frustrating for us, especially me in the winery permit process, being told what to do on my land, while at the same time everybody else (in agriculture) is immune,” he said.
“A neighbor says, ‘I didn’t buy into this,’ but you did. When you buy agricultural land next to ag land, you need to be aware. You have to be educated as to what you can do.”
The growing rancor has bogged down the winery permitting process to the point that county supervisors made revising the wine ordinance a top priority in 2012.
“The winery ordinance issue affects the whole county, but most of all the Santa Ynez Valley,” said 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes both the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys and who pushed to make ordinance changes a top priority for the board.
“(Board members) realized I was hearing about the increasing divisiveness, or polarization, as individual winery projects were coming through. Or there were zoning violations for activities that might end up being OK with revision,” Farr said.
The result has been a series of public meetings, with the option for comments to be made during the sessions orally or in writing as well as in writing by email and mail.
The meetings are being held through February at locations throughout the county, and comments from both the wine industry and residents will ultimately be the foundation for discussion by the Board of Supervisors.
Some, however, such as Lisa Bodrogi, who is executive director of the Central Coast Wine Growers Association and was instrumental in drafting the existing ordinance along with other community leaders, stands by the current three-tiered permit process.
It was established, she noted, on the characteristics of a proposed winery such as the amount of acreage planted, production capacity and square footage of buildings, all of which help define Tier I, II and III wineries and designate what tasting rooms and special events are allowed there.
She said the association is concerned with the scoping of changes to the winery ordinance that could lead to the re-evaluation of what she described as the “necessary components of a successful wine region,” as well as any perception that tasting rooms are not an integral component to a successful world-class wine region.
To date the county boasts 59 wineries in its unincorporated area, many of which dot a series of bucolic wine trails such as the one through Foxen Canyon, and quaint downtowns that offer ambiance as well as support for a multimillion-dollar wine grape industry.
In 2011, wine grapes were second only to strawberries and broccoli in the county’s agricultural yield, bringing in $76.9 million.
That number is a point, Larner says, that can’t be ignored.
The number of wineries in the county has more than doubled in the past 12 years. Of the 59 wineries, 34 of them — about 58 percent of the county’s current total — have been approved since 2000, according to the county’s Long Range Planning Division, and applications are pending for eight more.
Farr noted that when the existing winery ordinance was approved in 2004, the wine industry was growing but that it wasn’t until the movie “Sideways” came out that same year that the great popularity for wine tourism really took off.
“Not only did the existing wineries see increasing traffic, but there was a lot of interest from people who wanted to get into the wine business. They either converted, such as from horses, or bought new property. We’ve had an increasing number of applications,” Farr said.
At the same time the number of wineries more than doubled, the county’s population grew too, adding 24,548 people between 2000 and 2010 for a current population of 423,895.
Some of the fastest-growing areas were Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley; from 2000 to 2010, for example, Buellton grew by 26.1 percent, adding 1,000 residents to reach a population of 4,828, according to the 2010 Census.
Jeff Hunt, the county’s deputy director of long range planning, said the growing concern from residents is not so much the number of wineries, but the cumulative impact they have on things such as traffic on rural roads, possible intoxication of drivers, noise and lights, and a change in an area from agriculture to a commercial orientation.
“I think the value that the wineries bring to our economy is acknowledged by the fact that we have a winery ordinance,” Hunt said. “The direction (from the Board of Supervisors) is not to somehow burden the wineries without any concern for economic impacts. The direction is to improve the process, which should facilitate processing of the applications and have a positive economic impact.”
Hunt said that ideally an updated ordinance would address the neighbors’ concerns while at the same time streamlining the permitting process.
“I think there’s consensus that we need greater clarification on ambiguous terms, or definitions that are lacking altogether,” Hunt said. “There seems to be some general consensus that tasting rooms are very critical to these wineries, while special events, while they have value to the community, are perhaps not as critical to the wineries. The next step is figuring out what tools we’d use to address that.”
While the numbers are growing, tasting rooms and special events at wineries are not a new phenomenon.
Rusack Vineyards has a 5,638-square-foot winery and a tasting room in Ballard Canyon that were approved in 1996, and are allowed to hold 12 events per year with up to 200 people at each.
Larner’s application calls for a 19,400-square-foot winery and 1,083-square-foot tasting room, with eight events a year hosting 150 people each.
Kalyra, on Refugio Road in the Santa Ynez Valley, has the first recorded tasting room approval in 1978, according to county data. Special events information is not listed.
Since then, the county has approved 35 tasting rooms, including Fess Parker’s 4,800-square-foot tasting room in the Santa Ynez Valley in 1990.
Most recently, a 2,000-square-foot tasting room at El Camino Real on Zaca Station Road near Los Olivos was approved this month.
One size doesn’t fit all
Sandy Newman, owner of Forbidden Fruit Orchards in the Lompoc Valley, which specializes in blueberry wine bottled under the Cebada label, got her permit this month with relative ease for a small winery on her 100 acres.
“I do have neighbors, but because it’s 100 acres and we’re back in a canyon, and because I’m pretty quiet, I don’t have a lot of issues,” she said.
Newman’s permit application didn’t involve a tasting room, and she can have four special events up to 150 people per year and an unlimited number with under 80 guests, which she said she probably won’t use.
Her permit does include some restrictions, however, that she said will affect her organic produce business, such as not being able to advertise on her website because she’s not open to the public.
“I think they need to solve this for the whole county, because it’s a very difficult process,” Newman said of the permit process. “I represented myself; most people hire people to represent them. It helped me because I showed up everywhere, and people could actually ask me questions.”
Newman said she can see the problems from both sides.
“I wouldn’t want my next door neighbors throwing weddings every weekend,” she said. “I think there can be a compromise. I just don’t know what that is.”
St. John agrees that many of the issues are area-specific, and suggests that an overlay with specific restrictions for specific areas might be that compromise.
“For somebody like Forbidden Fruit, they don’t need an overlay,” she said, adding that even if there were 100-acre parcels separating the properties in Ballard Canyon, residents would still want the overlay because of the road.
“Out by Zaca or something, it’s a whole different ball game,” she said. “Our area is just unique, and that’s why we came up with the overlay (idea).”
For Larner, the answer isn’t as clear-cut, and he said he opposes an overlay.
“Basically, that would mean we’re differentiating between what is ag and what is not. We’re being labeled as commercial, and as factories, when we’re the true essence of agriculture. The problem with an overlay is that all of a sudden, you start saying that’s not the agriculture we want to see.”
Larner said understanding the nature of agricultural land and education are key parts of the balancing act, and he suggests making tasting rooms open by appointment based on parcel size as a possible solution.
The only tasting room like that now in the county is Dierberg in Happy Canyon, at the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.