SodaCanyonRoad | Aug 17th Planning Commission Review

Aug 17th Planning Commission Review

Bill Hocker | Aug 18, 2016 on: Tourism Issues

NVR 8/20/16: Frog's Leap Winery wins visitor expansion and jamming rights
The hearing video is here

In one of the more overt examples of tourism boosting, the planning commission granted Frog's Leap Winery an additional, say, 45000 visitor slots/year to sample their jams and jellies. Frog's Leap seems to be a model citizen in the wine community, and like other good stewards (e.g. Long meadow Ranch and Hudson) it is adding a variety of agricultural products to its offerings. There would seem to be a trend here, not necessarily unhealthy, in that it diversifies the agricultural base of the county (albeit modestly) and reminds us that the ag preserve and ag watershed designations are not just about grapes. All of the commissioners seems pleased to be able to approve the project,

But there is also an area of concern, one that Comm. Phillips touched on by asking to be assured that all of the jams would be produced from produce grown on site. The concern is that we are headed toward a Nut Tree business model in winery development. The diversification in products really does little to increase agriculture in the county (will the watersheds now be cleared to replace the plum orchards lost to vines on the valley floor?), but it gives a new end-run to the WDO if it is used to justify significant increases in visitation at "wineries" and a greater incentive to continue building and expanding them with no link to wine production. (In an ominous comment from Comm. Gill concerning winery visitation comparison numbers, she pressed the point that the WDO is "silent on numbers", setting no limitation on number of visitors or events. Just as the wineries eased their way into becoming restaurants competing with in-town offerings, this approval represents the potential to edge into Dean and DeLuca territory for the classier brands and Knotts' Berry Farm for the real entrepreneurs.

In a related bit of research, the WDO would allow a "jamery" to be built: "Uses permitted upon grant of a use permit: Facilities, other than wineries, for the processing of agricultural products grown or raised on the same parcels or contiguous parcels under the same ownership;" Why is this specificity about the source of the crops to be processed not applied to grapes as well, I ask myself?

In commissioner comments at the end of the meeting, Comm. Gill, seconded by Comm. Scott, took issue with a column title in the planning department's annual review of pending winery applications. The planning department keeps referring to "new annual visitors" being requested in the use permits. Citing an industry canard, brought up in many use permit presentations, the commissioners restated that visitors to new wineries will only be tourists that are already in the valley looking for other venues to frequent, a redistribution of existing visitors (just as Sup. Luce indicated that that the $6 mil spent on Visit Napa Valley was just to even out visitation rather than increase it) and that the wording of the column should not imply hordes of new tourists arriving to frequent the wineries they are approving. There will be, they seem to imply, no more increases in the number of tourists in the county resulting from the hundreds of thousands visitors needed to fulfill the new wineries business plans. "Less than significant" impacts here folks. Fortunately Director Morrison disagreed, beginning what Chair Basayne would describe as a "lively discussion". Assuming that new wineries contribute nothing to new tourism is just as erroneous as assuming that every visitor request will result in a new visitor to the valley, he implied. How much they add is an open question. In any case, he pointed out, CEQA requires the planning department and the commissioners to consider worst case scenarios in their review: 1 person/winery/trip.

The connection of new visitors to the valley and new visitation slots might be somewhat quantifiable. Based on the 2014 NV Visitor Profile average of 3.3 wineries/visitor the 677,000 new visitor slots/yr under review (as of Aug 2016) would require 200,000 new visitors to the valley each year to fill the slots. It's either that or poach visitors from other wineries (which doesn't seem to be a wine industry concern) or increase the visitation rate to 5 wineries/visitor (unlikely since wineries now serve lunch).