Fine, award-winning wines are no doubt the best-known agricultural products from Amador and Calaveras counties. With a few vineyards dating back to the 1800s (D’Agostini Winery is a California Historical Landmark), wineries are a distinct part of our local history. Not too many years ago, wine-loving locals and visitors to Amador and Calaveras counties had a handful or two of wineries to visit. As the popularity of wine grew, so did the number of foothill wineries. Vintners established wine associations that today boast a surprising number of members (43 in Amador County and 23 in Calaveras).
Over the years, special use permits and zoning changes routinely recommended by Amador County’s Planning Commission and approved by the Board of Supervisors allowed more and more wineries to add on retail and kitchen areas, and also to engage in additional activities, including concerts and other large events.
Today, thousands of visitors are drawn to our foothills’ scenic beauty and to Shenandoah Valley wineries nestled among acres of vineyards. While giving a boost to the local economy, as winery events and other activities have increased, so has the effect on Valley residents. These disruptions include increased traffic, noise, and night lighting. There are other land use implications, including demands on emergency services and water supply.
After years of rubber-stamping winery special use permits and rezoning requests, decision makers are finally recognizing the need to consider more than just the economic value of local wineries. “It’s time to draw a line in the sand” was the unexpected, but welcome, comment made by Amador County Planning Commissioner Ray Lindstrom during the commission’s October 13, 2015, meeting. Before the commission was a request by Andis Wineries for a zoning change (from residential “R1A” to agricultural “A”). While Andis made the request so that it could install a kitchen, the “A” zoning would also allow the winery to conduct additional activities “by right,” including 12 events a year for up to 450 people per event.
At the October 13 meeting, Foothill Conservancy’s Cecily Smith and long-time Shenandoah Valley resident Frank Moreno urged the planning commission to avoid “business as usual.” Smith noted that the rezoning request violated state environmental law because it did not consider the cumulative impacts of the zoning change. These cumulative impacts are already apparent from the increased number of large events being held at other wineries, which now affect local residents like Mr. Moreno.
During the commission’s discussion, individual commissioners living in wine country acknowledged more traffic, noise, and light disturbances near their own homes. They also agreed that the county’s zoning ordinance sections related to wineries needs to be changed, but that any revisions would need to wait until the county completes its general plan update. However, since Andis was only interested in installing a kitchen, the winery could accomplish that goal by applying for a special use permit instead of a zoning change.
The planning commission recommended that the board of supervisors deny the zoning change. At the board’s November 10 hearing, several Shenandoah Valley residents stated they don’t feel safe driving on the local roads. They’ve lost the quiet they once had and their community’s historical rural character. We again stated our concerns on the need for the county to comply with environmental laws, and noted that Andis could apply for a use permit, which would allow conditions to be placed on events and other operations. The supervisors agreed and denied the zoning request. The board had denied a similar zoning request outside Fiddletown a few weeks earlier.
What will be the effect of these recent county actions? We hope they signal a future in which our local decision makers will start to give closer scrutiny to winery requests for special permits and zoning changes. We hope it means decision makers will follow state law and request environmental reviews when required. And we hope Shenandoah Valley residents will start a dialogue among themselves on how to balance the area’s economic benefits with its distinctive rural history and quality of life.
For more information, please contact Cecily, 209-223-3508.