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Moratorium on winery events nixed

Planning Commission, task force team up to offer other solutions

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Posted: Friday, July 20, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:38 am, Sat Jul 21, 2012.

There is no moratorium on marketing events for local wineries after the San Joaquin County Planning Commission decided on an unexpected solution at Thursday's meeting.

Wineries and wine cellars in San Joaquin County are still free to expand their marketing event permits, as long as a newly formed ad hoc group works diligently to come up with another solution.

The Wine Ordinance Task Force has brought together representatives from all the stakeholders in this problem, from wineries to their neighbors to Lodi businesses, said Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. It was established after the June commission meeting, when the amendment proposal was pushed back to July.

If the WOTF can pull together a probable solution and present it to the commission in 60 days, the ordinance revision process could go much faster and not impede the wine industry in the process.

Members of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation and Visit Lodi! teamed up to create the Winery Ordinance Task Force.

Patrick was concerned that the moratorium had no ending date.

"It could take three years for the general plan to come forth. That will kill this industry's momentum. I would rather have the solution come from people within the industry," he said.

Nancy Beckman, director and CEO of Visit Lodi!, said one marketing event can pave the way for countless future wine sales.

"We hope it's not a death knell, but in actuality, this is a permanent change to county codes. What guarantee do we have that this will ever be changed?" she asked.

The original ordinance took 18 months to draft and approve. It created the definition of a marketing event: a wedding, a party or a corporate meeting on site at which the house wine is served. These are separate from what's considered a normal winery event, including wine club events and industrywide events like Wine and Chocolate Weekend or First Sip. These events are allowed regardless of permits.

Of the 58 wineries in the county, 27 are permitted a certain number of marketing events each year.

For marketing events, wineries need special permission and are limited both in the number of events and the number of people at each event.

The ordinance made it clear that marketing events cannot be the primary purpose of the winery. Wine production has to come first, because the plots of land are zoned for agriculture.

Neighbors and some members of the wine industry are concerned that marketing events are pushing aside the wineries' purpose.

"They might be good fiscally, and for tourism, but they aren't in line with ag code," said Sullivan.

Also, amplified music and parking in the public right of way have been problems.

The text amendment, or the moratorium, as many speakers called it, wouldn't take anything from existing wineries, but would limit their growth by blocking an increase in events.

Existing wineries could not apply for more events or to have more people at those events. New wineries could not have marketing events at all, outside of the four special events all wineries are entitled to.

The moratorium would continue until a new ordinance could be drafted and implemented along with updates to the county General Plan.

A few neighbors spoke to support the amendment.

Fred Donald of Lodi lives near seven existing and proposed wineries. He said marketing events have always been an issue since the concept was established 11 years ago.

"Build the winery, that's fine, but let's get some structure on what a marketing event is," he said.

Judith Isola of Lodi lives in the same area, and is also tired of the noise on summer weekends.

"We moved to the country for a reason, to have peace and quiet. Not to have concerts and weddings," she said.

Several other speakers opposes the amendment.

Dan Durst lives on Acampo Road and his winery is still under construction. He applied for four events, but was hoping to expand in the future. Durst says marketing events are the lifeblood of small wineries.

"This will really stunt the growth of new wineries," he said. "It's not all big concerts and weddings. Most events are small and don't impact the neighbors."

Mark Chandler, former director of the Lodi Wine Grape Commission, said Lodi is still growing into a winery destination and needs time.

"Passing this moratorium gives the impression the board is anti-jobs and anti-development. That's bad policy and bad politics," he said.

The commission toyed with the idea of creating a dedicated force to deal with wineries out of compliance, but rejected the idea as too costly for an isolated problem.

The Winery Ordinance Task Force submitted a request to the commission to push back the moratorium for 90 days.

"Just give us some time for the natural, organic process of solving this to happen," said Ryan Sherman, a partner at Fields Family Wines and a real estate developer.

The commission rejected the request, but later in the meeting asked the task force if they would be willing to come up with a report of possible alternative solutions.

Ultimately, the commission dismissed the moratorium and directed staff to begin working now to revise the winery ordinance, instead of lumping it in with the general plan. At the same time, the WOTF was given 60 days to create a report of possible solutions that county staff could use to draft a new ordinance.

WOTF members were pleased with the solution. They will meet again on Monday to move forward.

"We all want wineries to be good neighbors," said Beckman. "I think this group will be a good fit for the problem."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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