Monday, August 8, 2005

CGF appeals Santa Clara County approval of "wine caves" off Skyline Drive

We've become increasingly concerned in recent years about conversion of steep hillside grassland and forests into vineyards and wineries. See our appeal letter below - this is an issue that the County needs to examine more carefully.

August 4, 2005

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
County Government Center, East Wing, 10th Floor
70 West Hedding Street
San Jose, CA 95110-1705

Ms. Colleen Oda
Santa Clara County Planning Office
County Government Center, East Wing, 7th Floor
70 West Hedding Street
San Jose, CA 95110-1705

Fax (408) 288-9198

Re: File Number 4242-9-60-04G-04EA, Grading Permit – Rhys Vineyards Winery

Dear Board of Supervisors and Ms. Oda:

The Committee for Green Foothills joins with Sharon Peters and John DeLong in the appeal of the grading permit granted to Rhys Vineyards Winery for the construction of wine-storage caves and related improvements.

In general, we support and promote ranching and farming throughout Santa Clara County, including vineyards. In some places, replacing seasonal row crops with vineyards may even be a positive development that signals a longer-term commitment to agriculture. Rural industries like wineries, tasting rooms, and storage caves could also be appropriate under the right conditions.

We note, however, the potential impacts of increasing conversion of hillside grassland and forests to new vineyards and wineries throughout the Bay Area and in our County. These new developments present problems that are less relevant to long-established vineyards. While we do not take an outright stance against all new vineyards and wineries, the Committee for Green Foothills believes the environmental impacts of these projects must be closely analyzed. We appeal this particular project’s approval because of problems in the way that it was handled, particularly in what we consider “segmentation” of a single project into subsequent parts that have not been analyzed. We request that the Supervisors fix this problem by requiring the project appellants to submit an application for the entire project. We additionally request that the Supervisors begin the process of revising County codes to more closely regulate new vineyards and wineries.

Segmentation of the Rhys Vineyards Winery

As described by the applicant’s consultant and submitted by the applicant, the owner is applying for a “Winery Cave Portal Permit” that will allow operation of a 24,000 gallon per year winery. (Riechers Spence & Assoc., “Waste Disposal Feasibility Report”, Feb. 15, 2005 at 1 (attached)). The winery will include storage and so uses the caves as that storage. Id. The applicant’s submission states “Rhys Vineards is planning on developing a winery in three phases over the next decade. The first phase will be the construction of the caves for the storage of barrels of wine.” Id. The applicant goes on to describe the subsequent “phases” of constructing the winery and designing a tasting room (a vineyard has already been planted). Id. At no point does the applicant assert that the cave construction is an independent project that would be done for it’s own sake, but rather the applicant describes it as part of the overall winery project. At a meeting with the applicant’s architect, Chuck Peterson, he asserted that the applicant would not be considering caves on the property if wineries were not allowed by the zoning. (Meeting with Chuck Peterson, August 1, 2005).

The County has not analyzed the subsequent phases of this project, so we do not know what impact of the overall project will be. We recognize that the applicant has made several environmentally-responsible statements regarding their operation of the winery and vineyard. We applaud those statements, but until proper environmental analysis occurs and conditions placed on any future permits, we can find no security in statements that can be changed at the whim of the present or future landowners.

There are two alternative reasons for why the Board of Supervisors should consider the subsequent phases of this project to be one single project, and analyzed together as a single project. First, the County could decide that this is not a “judgment call,” that the only appropriate way to look at these phases is as a single project. In that case, the County must grant this appeal and require a full analysis of the whole project. Second, the County could decide that it is a “judgment call” or gray area as to whether this is a single or multiple projects. In that case, we argue it makes much more sense to consider the subsequent phases to be a single project, and the Supervisors should therefore judge it all to be one project, and grant the appeal.

The only appropriate analysis of the proposed phases is as a single project.

The applicant does not consider the caves to be separate from the subsequent winery, and no evidence in the record suggests otherwise. In fact, the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District specifically objected to the segmentation of the project as one of several objections to the project, and unless we are missing part of the County’s response, the County never responded to this issue. In discussions with County staff, we were told the caves could have an independent utility from the planned future winery because the landowners could use them solely to store wine produced at their Woodside winery. While an interesting suggestion, it has no relation to what the landowners actually intend to do. It also does not make any economic sense – if the winery is not present at the same site as the caves, then all the caves represent is a highly inconvenient, relatively small (13,000 square feet) storage space. The landowners would have to harvest grapes from that property (located just two miles from the Skyline-Highway 9 intersection), truck the grapes all the way to Woodside in San Mateo County, process them into wine, truck the bottles all the way back up the hill to store them in the caves – and then transport the wine all the way back down to Woodside to sell it. None of this makes sense, as opposed to leasing appropriate storage space much closer to the Woodside winery.

We additionally note that the County Hillside Zoning requirements state that low-intensity “commercial, industrial and institutional uses may also be allowed if they require a remote, rural setting…” Absent an associated winery, the storage caves are merely a form of warehousing – there is no other special reason to construct the caves. Warehouses do not require a remote, rural setting, so the caves then should not be allowed.

The County cannot rely on some strained, imaginary purpose for the caves as an isolated storage spot miles away from where it is needed, where no reasonable person would make such use of the property, and one that contradicts the applicant’s own statements. This interpretation of when it is permissible to divide a project up in phases, if allowed, would permit segmentation limited only by people’s imagination. It should not be allowed.

As a matter of judgment, the County should consider the different phases of the winery to be a single project.

The question that the Board of Supervisors need to consider is whether it will result in better planning if it splits the analysis of the project, as proposed by County staff, or analyzes all phases at the same time. The applicant has stated they will need a grading permit for thousands of cubic yards of cut and fill for the winery construction. Granting such a permit is a discretionary decision by the County. The County could potentially deny the permit, a possibility we cannot rule out in part because no analysis has yet been done of the environmental effects of the winery. If this happens, the applicant will be left with exactly what they said they do not want – storage caves miles away from any winery. This outcome is not just a risk to the applicant but also to the public, because the applicant having made an investment in the caves will continue to press for approval, and use their cave investment as one reason.

The better planning approach is to handle the whole project at once. Combined impacts, such as all the construction impacts and traffic impacts, can then be considered together instead of piecemeal. If the County exercises its discretion to reject the project, the applicant would make decisions that are not based on investments already sunk into part of an already-constructed project.

For the above reasons, the County should grant this appeal. The County clearly needs to tighten its regulations on both vineyards and associated winery developments so that better regulation will happen. Again this is not to oppose all new vineyards and wineries, but only to call for better regulation. We suggest the County investigate the regulations and protections here as opposed to neighboring counties, and regulations in Napa and Sonoma counties.

Please contact us if you have any questions.


Brian A. Schmidt
Legislative Advocate, Santa Clara County

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