Press "Enter" to skip to content

Locals To Planners: ‘Enough Grapes!’

The old plan, the young live. Most of the people at last Thursday's Planning Commission hearing to address the Anderson Valley Alternative General Plan Draft at the Boonville Fairgrounds were over the age of 50. The sole young person (i.e., under 30) was the reporter from Mendocino County Public Radio.

A parade of locals trooped to the microphone while a diligent, but seemingly overwhelmed Planning Commission staffer, attempted to type their remarks. It will be interesting to see how much of the testimony she captured.

Most of the speakers said they supported the Alternative Plan. Several wine people and one Farm Bureau representative demurred.

Commissioner Greg Nelson, a Farm Bureau stalwart and grape grower from Hopland did his best to sit still and listen to people who mostly want to see the brakes put on his industry.

The Alternative Plan, written mostly by three women who live in Anderson Valley, addresses a wide range of planning issues but wineries and tasting rooms took the brunt of the criticism by locals, although judging from the indignant comments of the few wine people who spoke you'd have thought that locals were getting ready to storm and torch the tasting rooms.

Most speakers emphasized "diversity," meaning that locals generally think the Anderson Valley is being overwhelmed by the wine industry. The phrase "we have enough vineyards and wineries" was heard from one speaker after another. Wineries and grapes were blamed for the Valley's water problems, housing problems, the inability of young people to stay in the Valley to work, the straining of the social infrastructure such as schools and the health center, the local economy's overdependence on grapes and wine and tourism, the unsightly "terrascaping" — in other words the kind of wholesale transformation of a finite and hitherto coherent area that has resulted in the dread "Napafication" of similarly attractive nearby valleys.

Vineyards were also blamed for their ongoing nuisance value: particularly noise, pesticides and herbicides.

One woman pointed out that the only people benefiting from vineyards in the Valley are the vineyard owners — no one else.

Watershed advocate Steve Hall said that there is no point in planning documents which are based on market forces. Why bother? Market forces already dominate planning. He also correctly pointed out that the local Alternative Plan prepared in response to the County's farcical draft General Plan section on Anderson Valley was little more than series of modest requests, mostly voluntary. It did not contain a grading ordinance or a riparian ordinance or any other real restrictions on an industry that reconfigures whole landscapes, and is busily, relentlessly reconfiguring ours and taking our water.

As has happened numerous times in earlier watershed meetings, grading ordinance meetings, and other failed attempts to mitigate The March of the Grape, attendees reflected an almost childlike faith in the planning process. But anybody who's followed The March of the Grape closely knows that the occasional local outbursts of irritation at the wine industry have not slowed The March. It's clear, or should be clear by now, that official Mendocino County has no interest in regulating anything having to do with wine.

No one angrily pointed out the simple fact that the "alternative plan" would not even have been necessary if the County's expensive consultants had simply handled the input they got a few years ago as the expression of prevailing local sentiment that it is.

The only speakers who didn't oppose Napafication were, of course, the wine people, the few of them who showed up anyway. Everybody else present supported the Alternative Plan.

Gail Meyers said that wine and tourism can not accurately be considered "recreation," implying that ambling from tasting room to tasting room is not recreation. Recreation is taking advantage of the Valley's many modest recreational opportunities — canoeing, biking, hiking, walking, music, organic food, gardening, the Farmers Market, nature watching, and even catch and release fishing.

Nancy Mayer of Philo said that non-residential parcels — i.e., timber parcels — should remain relatively large so that businesses like the timber business can be conducted on a scale which allows it to flourish as it once did, thus preventing conversion of timber lands to vineyard. She said she opposed any conversion of timberlands to row crops such as grapes. Once a large ranch is subdivided, said Mayer, it is no longer cost-effective to conduct agricultural or timber operations on the smaller individual parcels.

A man who looked like he was fresh off a Caribbean beach introduced himself as Fred Buonanno of Philo Ridge Vineyards. Mr. Buonanno said he was a member and past president of the Board of Directors of the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association. He said critics of the local wine industry were looking backwards — but "you can't go back," he said. "I'm not really in favor of more competition," he added, "but I don't agree with those who want to limit further development." Mr. Buonanno said that there isn't that much more land that can be converted to grapes. (We've heard that before — former local vineyard manager Steve Tylicki insisted to us 1992 that there were very few areas in the Valley where additional grapes could be planted and we should stop worrying about it.) Buonanno also pointed out that the vineyard owners in the Valley may have lost up to 75% of their crops due to the recent frost, failing to explain what that — one of the predictable risks of doing anything remotely related to ag — has to do with the planning process. "It's too expensive to convert timber into grapes," he continued, implying that the wine industry is self-regulating because "terrascaping" costs too much. Buonanno also said the Alternative Plan was heavy-handed and weighted too heavily against his industry. He pointed out that more and more vineyards are organic (although, by acreage, most are not) and that he supported a continued discourse on the subject.

Robert Klindt of Claudia Springs Winery in Philo, a retired social worker, emphasized, as he has in the past, that more regulation will make it harder to finance small local wineries. By "more regulation," Klindt was referring to suggestions in the Alternative Plan that permits be required for tasting rooms and restrictions be placed on where they can be built.

Unfortunately, history shows that giving breaks to the small vineyards ends up mostly benefiting the outside corporate vineyard owners. According to research recently conducted by Captain Rainbow and David Severn at the County Ag Department, 82% of the vineyard acreage in Anderson Valley is owned by people who don't live here; most of that acreage is corporate owned by groups of distant shareholders.

Kathy Cox said that the Valley was becoming separated into the wealthy and their servants. And, "It has become too expensive for children growing up to find an affordable place to live," she added.

Local attorney Geraldine Rose said that it was time for the County to stop letting ag have a veto over all attempts at local regulation. She also pointed out that tasting rooms on rural or private roads in residential neighborhoods are a liability, and a nuisance for their neighbors.

High school math teacher Cathy Borst told the Commission that there has been some new housing erected in the Valley but it is not primarily for Valley residents or farmworkers because it is mostly "upscale" — second homes and retirement homes — and not remotely "affordable" for persons of ordinary means. Ms. Borst also decried the County's lack of attention to water limitations. She said that the County had no useful water information for Anderson Valley, no baseline of water levels to even measure against. She also said that most locals are afraid to point out publicly that there are a lot of illegal water diversions. (There are many, as anybody who hikes any local stream can see for him or herself.)

A young winemaker named Joe Webb said he had arrived in the Valley eight months ago to enter the wine industry after having graduated from the Sonoma State wine program. He pointed out that wineries need tasting rooms to make a profit because they can't make enough money selling their cases of wine at wholesale for half or two-thirds of the retail price. "The alcohol industry is the most highly regulated business in the United States," he said, adding that there are a plethora of federal and state hoops that must be jumped through to sell wine, and that if the County adds more hoops it will only give an advantage to the large scale vineyards. "Don't regulate small wineries out of business," Mr. Webb urged.

Mr. Webb also complained that he had not been notified of the alternative local plan early enough to prepare a response to it, and that therefore it amounted to a violation of due process. He said that the drafters e-mailing a few people with various draft versions did not constitute notice. When Mr. Webb threatened, "If there are more regulations, people like us will move out to areas who will support this industry," a couple of local cynics in the audience applauded.

Philo resident Bev Dutra, all the way on task as always, pointed out to Mr. Webb that the County's General Plan process has been underway for years and anyone with even a modicum of interest in it would know that it was underway. It is an individual's responsibility to participate, she said. The County's original draft was obviously inadequate, prompting a few local people to get together on their own to provide alternative input to it. These locals were simply preparing their own input and were under no obligation to notify others who had the same opportunity to provide input, she said.

Dutra also pointed out that if the wine industry was so heavily regulated how did they get so big? Dutra said the Valley also needs a slaughterhouse but the regulations on slaughterhouses are much more stringent than those on grape growing and winemaking. Childcare facilities go through more hoops than tasting rooms do, added Dutra. She said that at present the mostly unregulated wine industry in the Valley is encouraging speculation, as more and more vineyards and wineries hope that somehow they will make enough money to survive, but that the bottom could fall out at any time. She said that tasting rooms should require major use permits, not get a free pass as if they were produce stands. Dutra insisted that permit requirements "are reasonable and appropriate" and without such permits tasting room proliferation will inevitably lead to lawsuits as neighbors go to court to complain about flocks of unwelcome tourists using their private roads to visit tasting rooms in residential areas. Dutra also pointed out that the traffic associated with seasonal wine and tourist related activities, plus the large increase in seasonal vineyard workers, can create a kind gridlock along the Highway 128 corridor.

Local realtor Mike Shapiro said that the entire problem was caused by the County's failure to prepare a reasonable General Plan draft and to make a decent effort to take and incorporate local input in the first place. Since the current draft plan does not reflect community input it has no balance. Shapiro also pointed out that other less high profile industries not only have been left out of this particular alternative plan, but that they apparently chose not to be present, heard from or participate. Shapiro complained that there's always lots of talk about affordable housing but there's been no serious attempt to do anything about it. He pointed out that the standards for developing more than five homes per parcel apply to places like downtown Ukiah and are completely impractical for rural neighborhoods such as Anderson Valley.

Shapiro knows from experience — he's tried to create a higher density housing development in the Valley, but by the time he penciled out the cost of meeting the city-fied standards, the project was no longer affordable.

Larry Londer of Londer Vineyards said he's been here about eight years and has been on the Health Center Board. He said he did not agree with anyone dictating tasting room requirements. He said that Valley floor tasting rooms on Highway 128 "have not done very well," and that only wineries with tasting rooms can survive economically. He described the process of building a winery as a regulatory gauntlet. "No one wants to go through that," he said without explaining the proliferation of tasting rooms in the Valley over the past three decades. "We are not a monoculture," added Londer. "We make world-class wines here." Londer continued, "It seems like this group is very anti-wine and this attitude will hinder the development of future vineyards and wineries." Londer said that the entire planning process should be sent back to the community for further discussion so that they can arrive at some kind of consensus.

The trouble with consensus, as has been shown at numerous previous attempts to discuss these issues, is that the wine industry (which has taken over the local Farm Bureau) simply blocks anything they don't like, which is anything that interferes with them. They do not want any regulation and they will not consider any. They'll talk a lot about process and consensus but sabotage it when it arrives. Local enviros, who also love to talk, are always available for talk, and keep on talking while vineyards and roadside bars proliferate, hence the current lack of regulation.

Christy Charles, director of the local Wine Grape Association, said that the comments were heavy on "diversity" and "community" and were very idealistic, but that diversity depends on things that are economically sustainable. "The reality is that if there is no economy, there is no life," Charles said, neatly summarizing the planning dilemma as it impacts the Anderson Valley.

Local cattle rancher Peter Bradford told the Commission that he appreciated all the hard work that the locals put in on the Alternative Plan draft but that it had gone "well beyond the scope of the general plan." "Diversity does not pay the bills," Bradford declared. He said he was opposed to the local alternative plan and that ag land owners need to have the option of switching crops — including from timber to grapes, for instance — so that they can adapt to market conditions.

Bradford had to be asked several times to, "Please summarize" as he rattled on about property rights well beyond the allotted speaker times, replying "I am" to each reminder to summarize.

The sound of the bagpipes presaging the arrival of the popular wounded Iraq war vet Jesse Slotte suddenly caused most of the people in the room to bolt to the street to greet Slotte as the undeterred Bradford droned on.

Having accomplished their goal of repeatedly telling the Planning Commission, "Enough grapes already," the bulk of the attendees had no idea what the Planning Commission said at the end of the meeting or where they were going from here.

* * *

But, the County's bureaucracy has already tipped its hand.

For example, the alternative plan's modest "suggestion" that new tasting rooms be limited to the four townships and require use permits met with stiff resistance from County staff: "The inclusion of 'retail facilities' [i.e., tasting room restrictions] does imply a focus not agreed to by the Board of Supervisors. ... This implementation measure suggestion is not consistent with the final recommendation from the Board of Supervisors to staff." And, "Goals and policies pertaining to commercial development and tasting rooms were previously addressed in this attachment and were determined to be inconsistent with direction provided."

Translation: No restrictions on tasting rooms.

Toward the end of last week's Supervisors meeting, Fifth District Supervisor J. David Colfax, asked Planning Team boss and Assistant County CEO Alison Glassey what would happen with the Anderson Valley Alternative Plan — the last major step before final General Plan draft preparation. Glassey first replied dismissively that much of what was in the Alternative Plan was already covered in other parts of the General Plan, albeit in a general way, but that if the Planning Commission deemed any of the input to be "significant" then it would be processed through the Planning Team and Staff and presented to the Board for approval. If that happens (i.e., the unlikely determination that anything in the input is deemed "significant"), Glassey added, it would "unfortunately" set the General Plan Update schedule back by at least a month.

Translation: The County will ignore the wine-related aspects of the Alternative Plan and the opinions of locals.

According to Glassey the reason most of the community input to the General Plan Update process has been ignored so far is that the Plan sat dormant for almost two years, from 2004-2006. Somehow, Glassey claimed, this dormant period caused the planning "inputs" to be broken up into pieces, which then disappeared into Planning and Building Department Director Ray Hall's famously fathomless in-box.

No one asked, and Ms. Glassey didn't explain, how something as important and expensive as the County's General Plan Update could sit dormant in a manager's in-box for that long. But we do know that, according to former senior Planning Team Planner Pam Townsend's deposition in response to the lawsuit about the County's failure to make any progress on legally required affordable housing plans, that Mr. Hall's in-box went unexplored for months, maybe years, at a time.

Translation: Now that we've delayed the process for years, it's too late to properly consider input.

Aside: Last week when County Transportation Department Head Howard Deshield provided one of his routine road condition reports to the Supervisors, Supervisor Mike Delbar had to ask Deshield for a project status report on ongoing road projects. Deshield said he'd do it — soon. But the real question is, why don't the Supervisors get regular project status reports from every department? Planning? County Counsel? General Services? Sheriff? None of them give regular project status reports. Just another in the long list of things that our very well paid County Management crew gets away with not doing.

Glassey told the Supes that the current timeline for the Draft General Plan Update calls for the draft to be given to the Supervisors, and the public, on July 21, 2008 (if not delayed by the pesky "unfortunate" Anderson Valley Alternative Plan). The Environmental Impact Report for the General Plan Update is supposed to be given to the Supes on August 18. Both documents reportedly involved 45 day public review periods, followed by more hearings by both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors on dates not yet specified. "Our goal is to have the Update completed by the end of year," said Glassey. "It will be done by the end of the year." Also during this time the last 25% of Draft Ukiah Valley Area Plan — which is part of the General Plan Update — is supposed to be completed and presented to the Supervisors by the end of July. It will have to go through the same review and hearing process as the General Plan itself.

If all of this sounds unrealistically optimistic, especially considering how long its taken to get even to this stage, remember that the Board composition will change significantly next year. Now that the June Primary election is over we know that Masonite rezone opponent Carre Brown is in a good position to defeat rezone supporter Mike Delbar in the First District, and both of the run-off candidates for the Second District, Estelle Palley-Clifton and John McCowen, are opponents of the Masonite rezone (which is the green light for the big project that mall developer DDR of Cleveland has in the works), pretty much the only truly significant thing in the entire General Plan Update process.

One Comment

  1. Michael Laybourn December 21, 2009

    Maybe it is time to look at wineries as small and local and separate them from remotely owned and huge corporate businesses. Big business is by nature greedy and believe in unlimited growth. Small local wineries are generally more responsive to local problems as is a small business. Criticism could then be focused on who uses the most resources and the ones that are less connected to the needs of the county. Plus, local profits stay in the county to recirculate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *