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Winery events as political battleground: Why a moratorium isn’t the best answer

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Posted: Saturday, May 19, 2012 12:00 am

A proposed moratorium on event permits at local wineries is drawing blistering reviews.

This week, the Lodi City Council joined in, agreeing to send a letter to San Joaquin County officials condemning the proposal.

Leaders of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce and Visit Lodi! are also perplexed, saying the moratorium will snuff out jobs and revenue just as a fragile economic recovery seems to be taking root.

This is a sticky, sticky issue. It includes passionate viewpoints, lots of money and power politics. Sorting through it all, we have our own qualms about a moratorium.

What’s the fuss all about? Noise and traffic, mainly.

And permits. Mainly items called marketing event permits. Of the 58 approved wineries in San Joaquin County, 26 have such permits, which specify the number of concerts, weddings, fundraisers and such that may be held at the locale each year. The maximum number of events, 37, is permitted at Vio Con Brio, for instance.

Under the moratorium, those 26 wineres would not be allowed to expand the number of events they host. And those wineries without the permits would be out of luck — at least until the whole issue can be reviewed through a general plan process that could take a year, maybe two, maybe even three.

The permits equal money. Money, of course, equals prosperity.

That’s why it is hard not to be swayed by those against the proposal.

“I can’t think of anything worse to happen economically to our No. 1 growing industry,” Lodi Chamber chief Pat Patrick told the council this week.

After all, we’re hosting 2 million wine-related visits each year, worth a collective $400 million. That’s everything from hotel rooms to gas to tri-tip at local eateries.

A growing number of these visits are relating to events, such as weddings, wine dinners and musical offerings.

For example, Nancy Beckman, president of Visit Lodi!, tells of a Sacramento CEO who recently booked a winery for an all-day management retreat, then came back for a wine dinner with more than a dozen friends and colleagues.

That wine dinner may not have been allowed under the moratorium, she said.

And yet, along with the flowing wine, the good times and the magical ringing of cash registers, there have been issues. Most relate to bothersome amplified music and lack of parking.

Consider the plight of Dave Isola, who lives northwest of Lodi.

Mr. Isola recently wrote us about the distractions of “wedding season” when music and even fireworks are a nocturnal distraction. One night, he was treated to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” booming from one location while “Stuck in Lodi,” echoed from another.

Isola believes only a few “rogue” locations are causing problems because the county lacks a fair or effective permitting process.

“Do my otherwise quiet summer evenings in the country really have to yield to blaring wedding standards in order to ‘promote Lodi wine?’ Do my property values have to suffer these nuisance conditions so that local hotel occupancy rates might be increased?”

So it is hard not to be sympathetic to Mr. Isola and others who are decidely not part of the glass-clinking festivities.

Moreover, there are concerns that some venues are event centers merely posing as wineries.

That point is raised by the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, which suppports a moratorium until changes can be made, changes the bureau feels must, in the words of program manager, Katie Patterson, embrace a “winery-first approach as well as focus on the theme of being a good neighbor.”

Where does that leave us?

We aren’t convinced a moratorium is the best answer. It does appear the problems are limited and the moratorium is a rather broad brush stroke.

It also seems the county has the tools to crack down on maverick operations if it chooses to do so.

And we aren’t convinced, frankly, that the best, most innovative thinking has been heard on this issue.

The moratorum is set to be discussed by the Planning Commission on June 7.

Let’s call a time out.

County Supervisor Ken Vogel, a farmer himself, is likely conflicted over the politics here, as the farm bureau is pushing one way, the winery owners, at least many of them, in another.

Yet Vogel needs to step forward here. He needs to be the listener, the leader, the one to find common ground here — short of a moratorium that might do economic damage at a very critical time.

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