Wineries consider trying to rein in county supervisors
by Les Mahler, CVBT Correspondent

October 21, 2013 9:00pm
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•  Marketing moratorium may spawn voter initiative to override San Joaquin County supervisors

•  “A small group of us have talked about it”

Faced with an impending moratorium on winery marketing events, several Lodi wineries are contemplating writing up their own rules governing winery marketing events and placing it on the ballot for voters with the hope that it might void or supersede any county ordinance.

The idea, according to one winery owner who wanted to remain anonymous, is to “take away the Board of Supervisors’ powers.”

So far, according to the winery owner, the idea of writing an ordinance to place on the ballot is just in the talking phase. “A small group of us have talked about it,” the owner said. “That’s all it’s been, just talk for now.”

The idea came after county supervisors voted to have San Joaquin County’s Community Development Department work on establishing a moratorium on winery marketing events. Under the proposed moratorium on winery events, new wineries would be limited to four events per year while existing wineries would be grandfathered under their existing permits.

That 3-1 vote came Sept.10, with Supervisor Ken Vogel voting no and Supervisor Bob Elliott absent.

“We have to write it up,” the winery owner said. “It would make sure that there is no moratorium; that whatever the winery has in place for events under the current ordinance would stay in place. This would allow marketing events.”

Besides the moratorium, the winery-written ordinance would also address what some wineries perceive as an annoyance with their neighbors: the issue of noise during events such as concerts, weddings and weekend wine tasting.

“This ordinance would make it tougher for people to complain,” he said, citing an incident at one winery where the guitar player was inside but neighbors still complained and called police. “They’re making complaints that are unfounded, there was no reason to call the police; this has to stop,” he said.

As it is now, even when a winery is approved for an event with music, a neighbor can complain and the county can stop the music or make further changes, the winery owner said.

“The neighbor can come in and complain even though we’ve already gone through the process; they can still come in and tell us why we can’t do this; we want to change that,” he said.

If a neighbor complains to the Community Development Department, the winery has to appeal and that cost $1,500 each time. “We think if the neighbor was wrong and the complaint isn’t upheld, the neighbor should have to pay the fine,” the winery owner said. “It would make it tougher for the neighbor to complain.”

Requests for comments about the noise level and the $1,500 fee were not returned by Community Development Department.

Although it can be done, the wineries have an uphill battle if they want to write an ordinance for the ballot, according to San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Austin Erdman.

Even before they start gathering signatures, Mr. Erdman said he would need to read the text of the proposed ordinance first. Then, after approval, comes the process of getting the signatures to qualify the ordinance for the ballot.

“They’d have to get 15,943 signatures” of registered voters based on the 2010 election, although 20,000 would be better just in case some signatures were thrown out, Mr. Erdman said.

From there, the ordinance would be presented to the Board of Supervisors, who would then have 10 days to decide what to do. They “could adopt the measure as it is written, place it on the ballot or they can say, ‘we need more information’ and send it to County Counsel to make sure the initiative was written correctly,” he said. Either way, supervisors have only 10 days to delay placing it on the ballot for voter approval.

There’s also the cost, which Mr. Erdman said would mostly be borne by the winery owners. “It starts with filing the petition, then getting the wording correct, notice of intention, prepare the initiative and then collect the signatures.”

Winery owners can either gather signatures themselves or hire signature-gatherers, who would then charge for each signature collected. According to a 2012 NBC News report, the cost for each signature collected is either $4 or $5. In 2009, California did try to get away from paying for gathering signatures but then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in 2010.

Of all supervisors asked to comment, only Supervisor Carlos Villapudua responded.

In an interview at Freedom Café on a Tuesday morning, Villapudua said he wasn’t for the moratorium but for voted for it because he wanted it to go back to planning “so that all those people interested would be heard.”

“I wanted to make sure that Kerry Sullivan, (the CDD’s director) also included any ideas that the task force came up with,” he said. But the supervisor said a proposed moratorium that would limit events to four per winery kills competition and kills jobs.

“There’s room for competition and competition that’s good,” Mr. Villapudua said in a separate interview Monday morning. “There are people that come here from all over the word, that tourism creates jobs; we get revenue and it equals more jobs for the county.”

“We’re providing grapes to the Napa valley, our tonnage of grapes is up; grapes are No. 1, we’re doing well,” he said, “I don’t want to try and put regulations on the industry.”

Besides, the wine industry brings in millions in taxes to the county, he said.

(In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter and Supervisor Villapudua are Facebook friends.)

In an earlier interview, Nancy Beckman, president and CEO of Visit Lodi!, said wineries bring in more than $400 million annually in tourism dollars.

“Wine tourists bring in over 2 million people annually, and it’s been increasing,” she said. Those visitors bring in more people through friends and family, and they end up spending the nights in the county. In the morning, they eat breakfast locally and then buy gas for the trip home. “It’s economic development pure and simple,” Ms. Beckman said.

In June 2012, members of the wine industry, the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, Visit Lodi! and the San Joaquin Farm Bureau formed a task force to work on some rules for the wine industry.

“Our goal was to come up with these solutions that caused supervisors to reach for a moratorium. We spent hundreds of hours and came away with what we believe was a body of work that would satisfy neighbors, in terms of noise and parking issues,” said Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce.

When the task force finished its work, the recommendations were presented to the Farm Bureau, Mr. Patrick said. But that report never made it to the new Planning Commissioners.

Although the winery owners are just talking among themselves, Jason Morrish, deputy county counsel, said it’s too early to say what supervisors come up with as far as any moratorium.

“It sounds extremely speculative at this juncture,” Mr. Morrish said. “They have the right to petition, but it’s pretty speculative and it really depends on the vote of the board and the nature of their actions.”

Besides, only the board of supervisors can write an ordinance; instead, winery owners could pursue an initiative, a petition or referendum. “They have a number of alternatives that could be pursued; they have a right to petition.”

Still, Mr. Morrish said it’s still too early in the process to think about any type of reform to an ordinance that hasn’t been voted upon by supervisors.

“The board hasn’t acted yet, people are concerned about actions when they’re not sure what the board is going to do; nothing has happened yet,” Mr. Morrish said.

But one winery owner said he supports the idea of an ordinance or rule that would stop the impending moratorium.

“I’d support that; it sounds like a great idea,” said Dave Pechan, owner of Miramont Estate Vineyards in Linden. “I think it’s so wrong what they’re doing to this industry.”

Mr. Pechan said he would contribute to the cost of putting an imitative on the ballot. “I’d round up a few other owners and I would chip in.”

Although he didn’t get into the specifics, Mr. Pechan said several years ago the county shut down his winery business. “If they hadn’t shut me down, I would have hired more people and we would have brought in tourists. They took the fun out of for me; they squashed a lot of my ideas.”

While he’s for any initiative or referendum that puts a stop to a winery event moratorium, Mr. Pechan said he wants make sure it’s more than just talk.

“That’s what I’m afraid, that it’s just talk,” he said. “Not many people want to do much, they’re afraid to rock the boat.”

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