Redefining Winery Permit Process on Central Coast

Published in Central Coast Farm and Ranch, Summer 2004

Central Coast Winegrowers redefine permit process—and industry.
By Mark Storer

It’s been said that if you want to make a million dollars in the wine business, start with 20 million. Though hyperbole, simply put, starting a winery is an expensive and daunting proposition. One of the biggest matters to consider, of course, is the impact such a facility will have on the land. Will there be a vineyard nearby? Will grapes be trucked to the property? If so, how many per day? Will there be a tasting room? If so, will there be restrooms provided? How much wine will the winery be making? The list of questions is endless and of course the people in a position to answer those questions are at the County Government Office.

On July 6th of this year, however, a sea change took place in Santa Barbara County with respect to the permitting process for wineries. A new ordinance was adopted on that date by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission and it reads, in part, “The County of Santa Barbara Planning & Development Department proposes to amend the County’s Inland Zoning Ordinance (Article III of Chapter 35 of the County Code) as it pertains to winery development. The proposed ordinance amendment is intended to clarify and streamline the permit process for new winery development on lands designated for agricultural uses in the inland area of Santa Barbara County outside of the Montecito Planning Area.” That was it. That’s what it took for both the county and for winegrowers across the county to alter forever the way wineries will develop here. Of course, it took four years and a mountain of red tape to get to this point.

“The fact is that for a while, we came to a screeching halt with regards to building wineries in the county,” said Amy English, Director of the Central Coast Winegrowers Association (CCWA), the organization at the forefront of helping to create the new ordinance. “The problem was in the permitting process that had two paragraphs [previously] that said what a winery could look like or what it could make.” Wineries, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. In Santa Barbara County, some winemakers like Kenneth-Crawford or Margerum Wine Company produce less than 1000 cases of wine per year and have no tasting facility while others, like Fess Parker or Firestone produce well over 100,000 cases a year and have extensive tasting and event facilities. The impact that a 1000 case producer with no tasting room has versus a 100,000 case producer with tasting facilities and event space are vastly different. Yet before July 6th, all wineries went through the same grueling permit process costing tens of thousands of dollars and taking years to complete.

So, four years ago under the leadership of the CCWA, a 30 year old organization with many of the founding vineyard owners and winemakers in Santa Barbara County as members, the Wine Industry Task Force was created. Made up of agriculturalists, local residents, county officials and business people, the group was tasked with getting new guidelines from the government about what constituted a winery.

“The task force asked for more definition,” said English. They didn’t want to increase the red tape, “but it helped us all [in the ag. Industry] to have rules in place so we could build and grow.” The definition that was created was essentially borrowed from Santa Barbara County’s neighbors to the north in San Luis Obispo County. “There seemed no need to reinvent the wheel,” said English. The process borrowed and then modified for SB County’s specific needs is a three tier system that allows each winery to pick and choose which level suits them best. Level one is really a land use or over the counter permit. If a winery produces less than 20,000 cases a year and does not have a tasting room, this is generally the permit needed and the cost is generally no more than a couple hundred dollars, depending on the specific permit. However, as soon as the winery reaches 20,000 cases a year, they’re bumped up to level two and the cost can increase at that point.

Level two wineries produce 20,000 cases of wine a year or more and also have a tasting room. These wineries generally have more traffic on their property and more of an impact on the area in which they’re located. Level three wineries produce much more wine, maintain a tasting room and hold events at their facility. Level three has several “chambers” to it as well including how many events a facility has per year, what kind of events are held, how large the tasting facility is, etc. and this permit can indeed run well into the tens of thousands of dollars range.

“The tier permitting makes it easier for small production facilities to start up,” said Tish Beltranena of MNS Engineering and chair of the task force. “For example, one of the thresholds was saying that most of the fruit had to come from the land where the winery would be built.” Under the county’s old rules, a winery had to have 51% of the grapes on site. Now, 20% of the grapes must be on the site of the winery and 51% of the fruit must come from the county.

Beltranena’s MNS Engineering clients are exclusively wineries waiting to be developed in Santa Barbara County. Those clients were on a kind of indefinite hold until the process was completed, so she had a vested interest in supporting the Wine Industry Task Force’s efforts to streamline the permitting process.

And so it was that the process began in 2000. Members like David Thompson of Thompson Vineyards, Carol Herrera of Women’s Environmental Watch, John Butny of the third supervisory district and Iris Rideau, who offered her winery at the Alamo Pintado Adobe as the group’s meeting place, met and began to redefine the county ordinance winery permitting process. But it’s not all sweetness and light.

“It’s still a red tape nightmare, but it allows a lot more diversity and a lot more definition for wineries,” said Beltranena. Now, “hearings go by with very little comment from onlookers,” she commented

Lisa Bodrogi of Urban Planning Concepts and co-chair of the Wine Industry Task Force agreed. “There are still some things I’m disappointed with. But it’s a start.”

Amy English refers to the program, however, as “a good idea. It’s a good way to help business owners and entrepreneurs design a system that fits their needs.”

Kevin Merrill, President of CCWGA commented, “It adds clarity to the whole thing. There was nothing before and now there’s a set of rules that people can go by and that makes it easier.” Pointing out that this was really a success story not just for the wineries but for the whole county community, Merrill said, “we really bent over to listen to the concerns of the community and by the same token, we were able to explain to the community why we do things that way we do. So it was a real give and take process on both sides—and we’re pretty proud of our accomplishment”

The Task Force, however, still raised some eyebrows. “Our members wondered why we work so close with government,” admitted English. “Well, they live here too, and we have to confer with these folks. There has to be some consensus. We’re representing an industry, but we support all of agricultural and we want to work closely with all facets of life. We’re not compromising anything, certainly not agriculture. We fight pretty darn hard for all of agriculture.”

The county bureaucracy rolls on, of course, but now the roles seem somewhat reversed. Instead of the county plying questions to agriculturalists and winegrowers, it’s the county who answered some questions and ultimately worked with, not against agriculture to grow and develop in a way that seems to work for the residents of the whole of Santa Barbara County.

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