Currently there is a moratorium on wine tasting in the Plaza retail overlay area. It will last until September 2018, but could be extended. On 2/8, there was a very interesting Planning Commission study session on the issue of tasting rooms that would be well worth the public watching the video.
Tasting rooms are a proxy issue for a larger community discussion concerning balancing wine-hospitality tourism with residential quality of life issues. This discussion has been called for, for years, but has languished and not received the attention it deserves. In the meantime, tourism inertia has crept onward and in many respects, the train has already left the station in terms of being able to regulate and engage community planning preferences. Wine actors have dominated the local economic scene and taken over.
Money has done the talking. Now the wine tourism issue, in the form of tasting rooms, has risen to the level where the city council has called for a moratorium to study the issue.
This whole narrative can be spun differently depending on what cohort’s interests, relative to wine tourism, are at stake. In Sonoma there are three main cohorts who have an interest in the tourism issue: working locals, wealthy locals and wine industry people. (There are grades within these cohorts, but I’ll leave that classification exercise to another time.)
Many times the local discussion around tourism is reduced to an all or nothing proposition among these three different cohorts. A lot of vilification takes place, minimization of, and disrespect of the other. There hasn’t really been a productive conversation.
Responsibility for the past antagonistic context can be partly laid at the past city manager’s, past Chamber head’s, and past city council members’ feet, for playing the issue as an intra-town-cohort fight, and taking sides, rather than seeking to look holistically at the larger issue. Everyone ended up taking sides, and once that happened, good will was lost for the relevant actors to see outside their respective bubbles and self-fulfilling prophesies.
Personally, I have hopes that “new” city manager Capriola will bring to bear a higher level of professionalism and analysis, and that the issue this time around will be framed in larger ways. The current staff report for the study session, written in part by Capriola, shows this higher level of public engagement.
Internal industry struggle
At some point, (late 1990s?) the wine industry started up an internal struggle that pitted the big winery model vs. central tasting room aggregation model with wine sales shipped from county warehouse locations to avoid city taxes. The Sonoma Plaza and county rural areas are the land use and planning ground zero for this industry battle to attract tourists to these respective locations.
A tourist attracting war developed. The Sonoma Tourism Improvement District (TID) was one army in this war. The upshot, county wineries pushed the edge of events and whatever they could do the get tourists into ag areas; the City of Sonoma spent and allocated tremendous money to attract tourists, and many people county-wide started to notice, hey, there is too much here!
The overcrowding has been noticed for a good 10 – 15 years now. Tasting rooms have doubled on the Plaza in the last five years. Somewhere between 50% and 70% of all Plaza businesses serve alcohol.
Free market polarization
In 2013 there was a Joint Study Session with the Planning Commission and city council to study the tasting room issue. There ended up being a majority for “let the free market take care of it”, i.e. no regulation. This was the control of power amalgam of city, Chamber and council. There were compelling voices for having some sense of limits, but these voices were not incorporated into any big decisions; they were outvoted and this cohort ended up feeling unheard.
It seemed that Richard Idell, wine industry lawyer/lobbyist/vintner, was about camping out in city hall and twisting David Goodison’s arm until David capitulated to industry preferences. This level of lobbying stood against the public’s pitiful three-minute allocation to make their case.
In reality, with the emphasis on free market, the framing of the tasting room issue at the time was almost totally ideological. A variety of viewpoints were not included because things came down an all or nothing scenario where civil, economic, and industry players won the game. This same pattern played out at the county level, with Farm Bureau, PRMD and a majority of supervisors outflanking the forces for limits.
Tasting room proxy as land use or ideological issue?
Tasting rooms are a local land use and zoning issue that requires a certain level of possible actions and solutions that are not supposed to be based on ideology, but rather on the General Plain and the Development Code.
This land use and zoning level is where the municipality of Sonoma can exercise values choices about the flavor of town. But wait, the General Plan and Development Code have values?! Yes they do. Values are connected to ideology, and hard, culturally locked-in preferences that people treat as fact and not elective.
Here is where you see the Planning Commission and city council struggle to keep it to the facts, but at the same time, being unable to avoid getting mixed up in how values serve to interpret the facts. No one can avoid that nexus because this symbolic muddy water is the essence of being human.
Use permit vs. “by right”
All the past 2013 and 2014 tasting-room-as-proxy-issue-for-unbalanced-tourism-talk boiled down to whether or not to require a use permit for new tasting facilities in the Plaza retail overlay area. Or to allow a “by right” process, which means a business can carry on any use approvals administratively. In 2014, the end result of all the machinations was that a use permit was not required for tasting rooms. The use permit represented the only tool presented at the time to have any public oversight on new tasting rooms. As Planning commissioner Roberson said at the time, “the use permit allows the public to have a voice.”
The essential struggle was over limits or no limits, and who had control of the civic planning process. Industry players? Wealthy locals? Working locals? The corollary question is begged: who does the city work for here? Everyone? The money? What are the priorities and why?
Some small changes were made to tasting rooms so as to limit food serving, seating, etc. These small changes were to counter to incremental pushing of the edge of tasting facilities to keep adding more and more tourist attractors like tents, events etc. This pushing of the edge is still happening, and part of the business’s argument here is that they need more and more to be able to compete with other guys who are getting more and more. Maybe some limits might be in order, to stop a runaway commercial arms race. In this sense, “letting the free market take care of it” seems like a complete abdication of management and planning. Why would we even have the capacity to plan ahead if it was actually adaptive we just sit back and let Fate, the market, take care of everything?
Some feel that this human, more and more arms race is a state of nature and should just be allowed. Others feel that we are smart enough to make choices and have oversight on our own behavior. The debate between councilmembers Cooks and Barbose encapsulated the discussion. Was regulation good or bad, onerous or not? Said Barbose, “having 30 tasting rooms on the Plaza is not family friendly. Cook did not want to mess with the market gods and forces.
We make the rules
A use permit goes with the land, so once granted, it stays in perpetuity. But, this can’t really be true, because we make the rules, and rules can be changed. If you look at Plaza rules in 1912 apropos of controlling alcohol serving establishments, we could not possibly say now that those rules applied. Things change, society over time, molds how things are. (1)
The city council can, at any time, make a General Plan amendment, and thereby alter the direction of city policy. The 1912 regulations no longer apply. Any former regulation can be made by the city to no longer apply, or mitigating counter measures can be taken. For example, if highway robbery rent practices by Plaza landlords are a problem in maintaining the type of retail diversity that makes an authentic community, why are these landlords apparently immune for any regulation or oversight? Change the rules; disincentive the tasting room arms race.
Usually changes unfold in an orderly General Plan update process, which we will be seeing coming soon. As David Goodson said at the study session, the city’s General Plan economic development public engagement will be rolled out soon, and this will stand as an opportunity for a larger community discussion on tourism. Until that time, tasting room regulation will be conflated with the larger issue.
Costs and benefits
Returning here to the three main local interest cohorts, it is useful to recognize who benefits most, and who bears most of the costs. Wine industry people and some wealthy locals get the bulk of the financial benefits, while the social costs are born by local workers. The climate consequences in terms of transportation greenhouse gas impacts, GHG impacts, are born by all over time.
Who benefits or not here really explains why there is such polarization around the tourism issue. Those who benefit think it is great, and shoehorn all their facts into that primary assumption. Those who don’t benefit think the system is unfair. This unfairness is quantified by the Sonoma Valley Fund’s Hidden in Plain Sight study. The Hidden in Plain Sight study has the data that show the costs, from the county Economic Development Board. A new tourism benefits study commissioned by the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau and Tourism Improvement District should be balanced by a corollary study to show the costs of tourism.
Working locals and wealthy local sympathizers have been reduced to howling in the wilderness for years about troubles in paradise, until finally there is a moratorium in 2018, to revisit the tourism issue through the tasting room controversy proxy issue.
At the end of the day, grape growers, wineries, exporters, sales clubs, tasting rooms, wine bars, hotels, and restaurants get the gravy, while working locals have lost their foothold to even live in town. Some wealthy locals think the high-end tourism is great, others bemoan the loss of town character. These are all a known pattern in small tourist towns.
Getting nasty doesn’t pay
Names have been called and all actors are probably stung and resentful. Are industry people and wealthy locals really the greedy, immoral 1%? Are working locals and allied wealthy locals really anti tourism and a nay saying vocal minority? This all gets back to who is getting what share, who is bearing the costs? As long as this gets framed in an either/ or context, or as an ideological contest, Sonoma can look forward to getting nowhere fast in terms of being able to discuss the issues.
If you can’t get to the table with diverse actors, you’ll never talk. As the following Icelandic Saga quotes say, “men who always quarrel have no use for treaties”; “where fault can be found, the good is ignored”; “each of the wise should wield his power in moderation; they will find that no one is foremost when stout men gather.”
Nexus of luxury tourism and high inflation/ low wages
There is a clear relation between all the tourist boosting and the driving up of housing costs and the preponderance of low wages. This inflation connection is seen as good by tourism boosters and bad by working locals. In a triple bottom line sense, social equity has been forgotten in a rush for the money. However, to get market true believers to acknowledge that there is more to life and analysis than “let the free market take care it”, then becomes a challenge and problem in itself.
Maybe locally we can be better than Washington DC.
What has happened here in the overall marketing feeding frenzy to attract more tourists, is that Sonoma’s unique special qualities have become commodified and cheapened. Authenticity as a small town of diverse folks in a unique historical, geographic setting off the beaten track, has now been sold and bought up by the highest bidder. Working locals have been forced out or marginalized and impoverished by high inflation. Seniors, immigrants and the young are all struggling here as the Hidden in Plain Sight study shows.
So far, to address these systemic problems, the system overall has relied on non-profits and philanthropy to trickle back some benefits to those who are bearing the cost of social inequity. The philanthropy and non-profit appear to be firmly enmeshed in a systematic status quo, so that rather than address the cause of problems, they treat symptoms. This doesn’t make these actors of good will corrupt or inept, as frankly, out whole valley system is caught up in long term trends and power struggles at the national level that have brought us all to where we are now. No use calling names if we might try to work this out locally among ourselves.
Momentum for a new level of discourse
Maybe now with the city and Planning Commission study session, and Sustainable Sonoma rolling out, the level of the discussion can be raised and old black and white antagonisms can be laid down in favor of a more adaptive, collective, cooperative view, which would amount to nothing less than the conscious co-creation of our little corner of the world.
What would sustainable tourism look like if it accounted for all three main cohorts of people here in town? Imagine that! David Goodison and Cathy Capriola outline the basic tensions in need of balancing, in the wine tasting study session staff report. This tension is between demographic interest groups, and the allocation/ management of tourism’s cost and benefits
What will it take?
I’m capable of opening my lens to see the interests of others. I find that when this happens, I can see things that were before obscured by the bubbles of my own self-fulfilling prophecies. This is to say, when I set my beliefs aside and maybe look afresh, then all the facts start to reshuffle too. This might be what you call continuing education. I can see this same process happening as well among others, maybe this will herald a local awakening.
In the despair of national dysfunction, there is reason for hope locally.
Bottom line, it is easy enough to take up binary, polarized memes, and continue to shoehorn all data and facts into self-fulfilling prophesies that fuel the current black and white wars. It’s harder to take up a nuanced view, honor other players, and work for some conciliation.
The current end result of the tasting room issue could go a number of ways. No members of the wine or business community came to the tasting room study session; hopefully this does not indicate that back room arm twisting is their preferred strategy here. The loss of Patricia Shults at the Chamber may herald a new era that brings the Chamber back into politics. The potential for continuing war is there. There are actors who I sympathize with who are not ready for any reconciliation; they’re locked I into the fight.
My analysis here focuses on tourism costs to working locals. Tasting rooms are a proxy for a whole bunch of related issues. If a similar analysis was done by industry people, or different types of wealthy locals, I’m sure my eyes would get opened to factors typically not on my radar. Let’s see that analysis in some Sun guest editorial pieces. Let’s get some forward movement here, and not do a Groundhog Day on the tasting room question.
Ordinance NO. 121 Feb. 7, 1912
Transcribed by Fred Allebach 3/3/14
from Bob Parmelee historical archives, three ring notebook # 32
‘An ordinance establishing for the purpose of regulation only a license tax upon the business of wholesale and retail liquor dealers, defining the classes of liquor dealers, and other persons disposing of liquors; the manner of procuring said licenses; the regulations governing the conducting of said business, the collection of said license tax; limiting the numbers of retail liquor dealers; also misc provisions in connection with said license tax.’
The Board of Trustees of the City of Sonoma does hereby ordain as follows:
Section 1: all alcohol serving businesses are required to be licensed, taxed and regulated
Section 2: all venues serving any type of alcohol, ‘shall be known as a retail liquor dealer’
Section 3: all venues with a fixed place of business that sells alcohol ‘shall be known as wholesale liquor dealers’
Section 4: all retail and wholesale liquor venues ‘shall file with the city their petition for granting.. of a liquor license.. and state the location, rooms or place.. where business is to be carried out’
-the petition shall not be made by more than one person or more than one joint owner or tenant on any city lot
-and that the venue shall be of ‘suitable and proper locality for conducting such business’
Section 6: licenses are not transferrable
Section 7: all venues closed from 11:PM to 5:AM
Section 8: no more than ten licenses at any one time
Section 9: when any license ceases, the rest will be charged more for their licenses
Section 11: violations result in a fine of $50 to $100 and/ or imprisonment
Section 12: no gambling or dancing along with the serving of alcohol
Section 14: city can revoke licenses
Ordinance takes effect Feb 29th 1912
Ay: Dal Pogetto, McDonell, Quartaroli, Wagnon;
H.W Gottenberg, City Clerk