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Not enough councilmembers to vote on tasting room moratorium

Posted on October 3, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The Sonoma City Council’s consideration of a temporary moratorium on Plaza wine tasting rooms is itself on hold after two councilmembers recused themselves from the October 2 discussion.

The meeting agenda included a draft ordinance that, if approved, would have suspended any new tasting rooms until at least April of 2018.

The “urgency ordinance,” was recommended for approval by city staff. But as the panel discussed the topic, the question arose whether Gary Edwards, and then Amy Harrington, could vote on the issue because they own land within 500-feet of the retail district that could be part of any new rules.

City Attorney Jeff Walter said the state prohibits councilmembers voting on issues that could affect them financially. He gave what he termed the conservative advice postponing the discussion until a definitive ruling by the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

Down to three members, the council was forced to table the discussion. A ruling from the state agency could come soon enough to put the item back on the agenda of the next council meeting, on October 23.

There are 26 wine tasting facilities in what the City calls the Plaza Retail Overlay District, and a total of 30 wine tasting facilities in the greater downtown area. Under the proposal, five additional tasting rooms now in the planning process would be exempt from any ban.

“The question is how do we maintain our community character and balance for our residents while we also continue as a viable attractive destination for visitors, which is the keystone to our economy,” states the staff report.

Edwards is a likely no vote on the ordinance that, because of its ‘urgency’ status, will need four of the five votes to pass. He said that a free market should decide what kind of businesses open in the downtown area. “Telling people what to do with their money is not the job of government,” he said. Tasting rooms are proper fit both economically and with the town character, he said. “What are we going to put there, an Apple store?”

Jeanette Fung used her public comment time to argue that the Plaza is not governed by ‘true free’ market conditions. Because there are so few owners of prized downtown property, the rent amounts are set unrealistically high. “They can afford to sit on empty space until they get their rent,” she said.

Jim Bundschu said any moratorium would hurt local growers and the small wine producers that buy their grapes. By stifling that ability to market their product, he said, “You’re playing right into the hands of mass producers.”

When it returns, the draft ordinance could be rejected or delayed by the Council, approved as-is, or approved with modifications.

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