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Winery development fight rages on in Santa Barbara


Should wineries be allowed to host special events, such as weddings or fundraisers for charities, on their property?

The obvious answer is “Yes.” But a lot of people think otherwise. We’ve seen legal and political battles for years between both sides of this issue, up and down the state of California; but nowhere has it raged so fiercely as in Santa Barbara County.

The poster child for the brouhaha has been the Larner Vineyard & Winery, which has been trying to get a permit for a tasting room and winery at their vineyard property, in the Santa Ynez Valley. (I should point out that one of the family, Monica Larner, is Wine Enthusiast’s Rome-based Italian editor.)

The Larner family has been stymied from the outset by some of their neighbors along Ballard Canyon Road, who fear “the traffic and noise associated with tasting rooms and winery events such as weddings and fundraisers,” according to this recent article in the Santa Ynez Valley News. The county has been holding a series of public meetings, the last of which is supposed to be on Feb. 21, but whose outcome probably won’t be determined until 2014.

Proponents of special events at wineries say they’re good for the local economy, as they bring tourists with spending money into areas that, like the Santa Ynez Valley, are rapidly becoming wine-and-food destinations. Opponents “argue that such events can be and often are noisy and disruptive, and have at least the potential to release a lot of intoxicated drivers onto local roads,” the Lompoc Record wrote yesterday; Lompoc, too, at the far western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, has been experiencing similar struggles.

Here’s what I think. Winery development is good for regions. It brings in business via tourism. More tourists means more inns, coffee shops and restaurants. Which means more work for wait staff, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, janitors. Also more orders for suppliers, which benefits not just the immediate area but the wider one.

Yes, with tourism comes more traffic, and the possibility of drunk drivers. But the Sheriff’s departments in Napa and Sonoma counties seem to have a handle on that situation. I’ve been intimately connected with both regions for many years and have always been pleasantly surprised that the issue of drunk driving seems to be relatively minor. How many weddings would the Larner winery host in a year, anyway? Does anyone really think that the valley would be endangered by having a few drivers on the road who’ve had a glass or two of Chardonnay?

Besides, the county doesn’t seem to have an issue with all the tasting rooms in Los Olivos. That’s where the crowds are really concentrated, that’s where people drink and then get in their cars and drive. If county officials let Los Olivos get as developed as they did, they should let a couple wineries have a few weddings or fundraisers a few times a year.

I don’t feel particularly sorry for people who have been living in idyllic, isolated splendor in these pristine patches of wine country and who tremble with rage every time they hear a car drive past. I think Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley and other older examples of wine country have demonstrated that development can be encouraged and controlled at the same time. There are any number of ways to build in zoning or occupancy regulations that will prohibit an unbridled explosion of growth, yet permit it to occur in an orderly way. I hope the politicians of Santa Barbara County have the cojones to stand up to opponents of winery development who are loud of voice, but small in number.

  1. Steve, you haven’t noticed the pollution and traffic problems in Napa…these are in the papers lately. Also, you don’t live in the Napa and Sonoma regions….I lost electricity every weekend because drunk wine tasters ran into electric polls with regularity on Hwy 12. And the jobs you mention don’t pay enough for employees to live in the areas they serve, so more traffic…..I think a good question to ask is…can employers pay enough for their staff to live where they work AND is wine tasting a barroom activity? Right now (I pour wine) in Napa it is a past-time for getting drunk rather than to taste fine wines………I love the wine regions and I love the tourist part of it as well….but this is not without serious problems to the countryside and people who live/work there.

  2. Michael Larner says:

    Thank you for bringing our fight for my family’s livelihood to light. I should also clarify that the small contingent that is fighting us is against all aspects of my project, winery, tasting room and events. I am following the Land Use Code to a T and have not asked for anything that the previous 56 wineries on Ag zoned land in Santa Barbara have gotten over the past 35 years of growth. I think along with the “cojones” the local politicians need to do more to dispel the fear that is motivating these folks. A little education on property rights and the values of Agri-toursim is warranted, after all my neighbors have found me guilty of being a “bad neighbor” simply because I applied for the permit. Ironically I have had to temporarily open my tasting room in Los Olivos, because 134 acres of rural zoned land isn’t enough buffer from my fellow Ag land neighbors. Fortunately I am only 38 years old, so I expect to get the permit sometime in my lifetime.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Michael.

  4. I am originally from the SB area and got my first taste of wine working in tasting rooms there.

    Having left for more than a decade and recently returned (and writing locally) I found that SB County is very fragmented with lots of bloated egos that have very little knowledge of wine beyond the county borders.

    The local government is not helping the growth of the region by denying tasting rooms or touring areas.

    Happy Canyon AVA for example is producing some very fine Sauvignon Blanc but producers there are prohibited from accepting visitors.

    Larner too, who is in the process of getting Ballard Canyon an AVA, will fall victim to such restrictions and it is sad because the potential of region being recognized outside of California, even just Southern California, is being held tight by local politics and in-fighting.


  5. The Los Olivos comparison is a shallow one. They are having problems because of growing pains. We visited several weeks ago on a weekend and there are no public facilities ie. toilets on the main drag. The combination of a holiday weekend and porta-potties cleaned on Friday and again on Monday resulted in the expected unpleasantries for our visitors and who knows how many others.

    I feel for the locals who deal with the tourists. But eventually even the quality of the wines won’t draw people if the environment is unfriendly. You can’t pay me to go to Napa today because of the crush of people. How many locals REALLY want to go back to the way they had to make a living before the wineries?

  6. mary beth kerr says:

    Having driven Ballard Canyon Road for years I know why the People who live on the road object. It is rural road- narrow… in disrepair…. popular with cyclists…….. the unsafe road is the primary issue. Putting safety first is part if what we are asking for.

    The vineyard next door to us wants to add a winery with tasting room
    And we oppose it due to the deadly intersection two car lengths away- our lives…. our safety needs to come first- Please

  7. I’ve worked in both Sonoma and Napa (currently Napa) counties. I commute from Santa Rosa every day to work in St. Helena. I feel very confident saying that those doing well here in Napa Valley are happy to see the boon in sales etc, but those working the every day jobs in many places don’t make a wage that would allow them to nearby much like Cato said. I get that we all suck it up to commute, but living in St. Helena and doing anything during the day is really a grind on Hwy 29. In the 1 1/2 years I’ve worked on Hwy 29, I’ve seen no day time accidents that looked related to alcohol consumption probably because everyone is going 35 mph most of the time. Best of luck to those in those to responsibly grow their business in all aspects in the Santa Barbara area!

  8. mary beth kerr says:

    Today I drove Ballard Canyon Road to refresh my memory.

    Re-informing myself with a windy, switchbacked, multiple ‘flooded signs, no room for a guardrail dropoffs, cyclist pedaling in the rain, driver in a suburban on their cell phone, ….

    It is not lane marked and I was lucky as the mud had recently been scraped off- I remain convinced that adding a guest serving winery/tasting room would put lives at risk.

    Really folks?????? Putting people at risk goes against the opening of the current winery ordinance, which states that safety is to be considered.

  9. I agree with you Steve. Growth is inevitable and even though the Santa Barbara wine country at this point is far from experiencing the traffic problems on Hwy 29 through St. Helena (nothing shy of a nightmare), the county of SB does need to work on having a master plan in place for road and facility infrastructure to accommodate the growth (paid for by development fees, etc) and to prevent the problems experienced in other wine regions. Hwy 101 out of Healdsburg and through Santa Rosa and Petaluma is just now finally being expanded (not just because of tourism but also because of population growth), when it should’ve been thought about and done 15-20 years ago. SB county has the chance to act ahead of time instead of trying to put out the fire after the fact. I see a lot of good coming from more tasting rooms in the area like Happy Canyon, and not letting the Larner Family and others have a tasting room on their own property is absurd. Sacramento County has an extremely high DUI problem and they’re not even a wine town… so DUIs are going to happen anywhere, and to use that as one of your excuses to not allow tasting room growth is pretty shallow. Good luck to all down there working to get tasting rooms on your property… you deserve it, and we would love to come visit.

  10. 2000+ students graduate from northern santa barbara county high schools every year. Most, if not all, have to leave the valley because there are no jobs.

    And 99% of the produce (and 80%+ of the winegrapes) grown in SBC are exported and provide minimal value to the economy. Wine production is about 5x the localization value. We also import 95% of the food we eat.

    We need 5x the wineries and tasting rooms to fully enjoy the economic benefits of the County’s #1 business. Not saying all at once, but a sustained and careful growth would be a benefit to all that rely on tax-funded services–police, fire, in other words, all of us.

    Cato: please provide published evidence of drunk drivers taking out power in Napa/Sonoma. I couldn’t find anything, and I would hate to think you are producing this data without evidence.

  11. The billowing nonsense about poor, troubled Santa Barbara is precipitated by an unknowledgeable press. The reality is that one supervisor who is advised by one man (a nimby icon) has “heard” about controversies and troubles emanating from two ordinance areas. The first is the Winery Ordinance; the second is the Special Events Ordinance. The present Winery Ordinance is a mess. It is not usable by applicants due to its many ambiguities and complex nature. The underlying objevctive in the ordinance is an effort to prevent disturbances to neighbors. However, the ordinance uses no standards to accomplish this. An alternative ordinance has been submitted by a private group to the Planning & Development Department and the Planning Commission, as well as to all supervisors. This Good Neighbor Ordinance establishes standards, is not complex and requires a very simple permit. However, the P&D and the responsible supervisor cling tightly to the unworkable ordinance and try to “plug holes” in it. This is like adding fresh cowflop to a bag of old cowflop. It is still cowflop, only it smells worse.

  12. Thanks for standing up for life, liberty, and personal property rights, Steve. I have never been a fan of the drunken “wine crawl” ambience of Los Olivos, preferring to taste responsibly at the wineries proper before deciding what to purchase. Another productive winery and tasting room would be a boon to the local community, and it isn’t fair that NIMBYs might block this project when just up the road the Rusack family is free to share their wonderful wines with whoever might care to visit. The Larners should be able to develop their land as they see fit.

  13. Just asking because I really do not know the answer — what is the risk that there would be many wineries with tasting rooms on Ballard Canyon Road? I know there are several wineries/vineyards along the road, but this isn’t analogous to Highway 29 is it? Still haven’t been to SB wine country (it’s high on my list) but I’ve been to Napa/Sonoma several times. Anyone ever drive up to a tasting room on Mt. Veeder or Howell Mtn? Out Soda Canyon Road? Some of these roads fit the description Ms. Kerr gives of Ballard Canyon Road. Shoot, even parts of Westside Road in RRV could fit that description. But the tasting rooms are relatively few and the traffic very manageable because it’s really only the dedicated customer headed to these places to taste. Totally different demographic than the folks room hopping big tasting rooms on Highway 29 or even Silverado Trail.

  14. The time has come to correct inaccurate, inflammatory and unfounded reports about the so-called “controversy” over the Winery Ordinance. First of all, it is not a controversy. It is a process through which the Planning & Development Department has been forced to go by the Board of Supervisors and one Supervisor in particular. This process will cost the county (tax payers) well over $175,000.

    The current ordinance tries unsuccessfully to address impacts: Noise, Traffic, Parking, Lighting and Dust. Unfortunately, the current ordinance dances around those concerns by using numbers related to frequency, attendees, acreage, etc. The five impact concerns might be legitimate if you live close to a winery facility. Nonetheless, over the past three years, there have only been eleven complaints. None of them were about impacts.

    The third district supervisor tells us, “The winery ordinance issue affects the whole county, but most of all the Santa Ynez Valley. 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.”

    What divisiveness? What polarization? What zoning violations? Eleven complaints have been recorded by the county over three years. Three were found not to be violations. Two venues had no wineries. One was about an AG tour. Two were about construction issues. One was about a sign. One was about food service. One was about a “commercial” event. This is data supplied by the county.

    The Sheriff and CHP have confirmed with lengthy data that there have been no DUI’s or accidents related to wineries.

    Ballard Canyon Road is a tough go. But if you plan to walk or let your kids ride their bikes on a freeway, better not call the road to account for an accident.

    So, what is the problem? There is one voice from the East side of Santa Ynez that has been heard consistently complaining. He has written numerous commentaries and articles published in this and other media. The writings have used vast generalities, misrepresentations and non-factual information. He has fomented rumors, speculation and fear.

    Now, the Cattlemen and others have come forward with a common sense Good Neighbor Special Events Ordinance which is under consideration by P&D and the Planning Commission. Simply stated, the contents of this ordinance, although directed to the non-winery special events issue, would solve the winery problem with simple, objective standards for all five of the potential complaint areas. A great part of this Good Neighbor ordinance can easily be incorporated into the current winery ordinance. If done, it will answer the primary concerns of neighbors and citizens.

    A petition, circulated throughout the county by the Central County Coalition , asked potential signators if they supported wineries, tasting rooms and wine marketing strategies. There are over twelve hundred signators . Ninety percent of them are not connected to the wine industry. Residents of Santa Barbara County seem to support wineries.

    In the face of this support, planners are publicly contending that there are a large number of folks who don’t complain, don’t attend meetings and don’t write about their concerns. The reason given is that they are intimidated and don’t like to come to meetings, despite the fact that the county is spending a fortune on outreach meetings for their benefit. A demand under the Freedom of Information Act has been put to the county asking for proof of their statements.

    The County Planning & Development Department will have spent over $200,000 before this mess they have created is put to bed.

    If the Good Neighbor Special Events Ordinance is adopted for wineries, the other outreach issues of tasting rooms, food and structure will be solved. There will be no need for the next two hearings on neighborhood compatibility and structure. The county should save this cost and devote it to adoption of the Good Neighbor Special Events Ordinance.

    Lee Rosenberg

    The Good Neighbor Special Events Ordinance is found at:

  15. I am a neighbor of a vineyard. Regarding the lights issue, this is what we moved away from the city for, but now vineyards are bringing lots of lights that we have to look at at night and take away the better view of the stars.

    The noise and traffic are a problem. If you don’t think so Lee, how about you take the laborer traffic and welcome that traffic right next to your house. Then have your wife or daughter exit your house and ask them if they feel comfortable with laborers looking at them.

    The whole deal is bringing someone into the neighborhood that nobody knows anything about. Case in point, would be Lee, if you answered me these questions:
    1. Exactly where is your wife right now?
    2. Exactly where is your daughter (if you have one) right now?

    You would feel uncomfortable telling me exactly. You may tell me generally for the case of your readers, but exactly is a different story.

    Reason is, is you don’t know me or trust me. Same thing with laborers or visitors to the vineyard that is near a neighbor. Our concerns are the visual presence to our loved-ones of someone we don’t know or trust. That is the issue. Start with thinking of others instead of your pocketbook and that is what will ‘Solve’ the winery issue.

    Some suggestions are, keep the traffic as far away from the neighbors as possible. The laborers tend to hang around longer then they need to…put that hanging around far away from the neighbor or right next the vineyard owner house. I know you have a policy to put traffic next to the neighbors with the “start closest to the neighbors” policy…this is backwards and results in laborers hanging around the fence line right next to the neighbors house…an uncomfortable situation for the neighbor.

    This is what is being talked about amongst neighbors…not what you wrote about. You would so better by not spinning the news.

  16. John M. says:

    Thanks for the great article, Steve. Like most commenters here and probably most people who pay attention to these issues, I’ve spent my life in “idyllic” locations. I have often had to ask myself what keeps them so. Especially in Central and So. California, protecting an agricultural lifestyle means protecting the agriculturalists. Economic forces are what they are, and frankly I’d much rather live next to a vineyard than a big-box pharmacy, and the only thing that keeps that from happening is a zoning structure that works for everyone. We don’t live in a vacuum. If you don’t allow the vineyards some retail space, sooner or later you won’t have vineyards. If these whining elitists keep having their way I really hope the Larners sell the property to a developer who will sub-divide it and they put up condos. Ugly ones. Or maybe the town will decide some low-income housing would be better. Or maybe in tough times ahead a nice Wal-Mart would solve some budget issues. Good grief. I’m glad I don’t live with self-indulgent folks who are worried about a few nice couple stopping off to buy wine from a vineyard. Theyve probably never seen the alternative . These people live in a dream world. Wake up to what you have and protect it.

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