Century-old almond trees, walnuts trees, vineyards, quaint farmhouses, and bare brown earth smatter the hillsides expanding north from the Wild Coyote Estate Winery and Bed and Breakfast.
Brown Southwestern-style adobe walls decorated with pops of color perch near the top of the winery’s property with coyote bush and other wild vegetation at its back. In the tasting room, upbeat guitar music strums from a stereo system, while a quiet view expands from the patio to the edge of Adelaida, west of Paso Robles.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- KING OF THE HILL : Halter Ranch Vineyard recently received a permit to add more events and to expand its facilities, including a second, wine club members-only, tasting room behind its existing facilities.
Somehow, the property’s Southwestern theme fits the oak-dotted rangeland—a place where new wineries are born every year, styled somewhere between down-home country and outright grandiose.
Gianni Manucci, owner of the winery and bed and breakfast, has grown grapes, made wine, and hosted guests here for 20 years. For the majority of those two decades, Manucci said he’s mainly kept to himself as he’s managed his piece of land and the 40 acres of vineyards he grows on it.
Recently, that’s changed.
Manucci points to an isosceles-triangle-shaped vineyard down the hill and directly across the street. Most of that 42-acre piece of property is filled with plush green vines preparing to turn two years old. Dirt roads crisscross the vineyard, which is surrounded by other vineyards, abandoned almond trees, and rolling hills.
In the middle of that triangle is an open piece of land containing a stack of hay bales, a cement pad, and a retaining wall, with a paved driveway that leads from the property’s entrance. It’s not the vines but this flat piece of land that’s broken Manucci’s habitual quiet. More particularly, it’s what’s planned for that spot—a 17,408-square-foot winery and a 5,063-square-foot tasting room and hospitality facility that would be used to host events and private parties—that irritates Manucci.
The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission approved plans for the new winery and tasting room on Sept. 24. The site will house wine production and tasting for Parrish Family Vineyards and also host events ranging from small dinners and wine industry-related gatherings to weddings and private parties. Adelaida is where David Parrish, principal owner of the family-owned operation, plans to bring grapes from his two other vineyards in Creston and Templeton and produce up to 15,000 cases of wine per year.
On paper, the project meets almost all of the county’s standard land-use requirements. And the few exceptions granted to the project are apparently mitigated. Essentially, the Parrish project is nothing unusual for this area.
The county approved a mitigated negative declaration for the project, signing off that there are no significant environmental impacts that warrant further study. In general, Parrish—who has deep roots in the area and has been in the wine and table grape business all his life—and his family are doing the same thing several other vineyard owners, ranchers, and olive oil producers are doing: turn their land into a livelihood.
Similarly to a number of other vineyards in Adelaida, the Parrishes asked for 20 special events a year with up to 150 people per event. And the county granted that request just like it has with all the ones that came before it. All in all, it’s just another drop in the county’s grape-filled bucket. But for Manucci and several other people who live throughout Adelaida, that bucket is getting too full.
He joined other longtime residents on Sept. 24 to express a handful of concerns about the Parrish project before the Planning Commission approved it.
“The special events for after hours is going to greatly, greatly impact my family,” Manucci said. The winery’s permit extends noise-making hours into the night, rather than sticking to the standard 5 p.m. cut-off time.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- ENOUGH IS ENOUGH : Gianni Manucci, owner of Wild Coyote Estate Winery and Bed and Breakfast, is upset about a project on the property next door that includes new winery facilities and events.
Manucci also told commissioners that there are already noise issues because of construction at the project site, with disruptions occurring so early that
guests of his bed and breakfast demanded a refund and checked out early. Manucci told New Times that there were issues during the vineyard installation. Posts driven into the soil shook the ground on his property. Manucci also recounted an instance when, at 5:30 a.m., someone working at the vineyard was listening to a handheld radio while riding around the property on an ATV. If that little handheld device was enough to wake his guests up, he asked, then what would the amplified music of a wedding DJ sound like?
But while those who spoke in opposition to the project on Sept. 24 specifically targeted their comments at the Parrish winery, there’s a bigger issue bugging them—a systematic conversion of rural, agricultural land.
“My main concern is regarding how this will impact me and my business,” Manucci told New Times. “But if you compile all the objections as far as traffic-related issues and some other things that were brought up, the compounded problem is much greater than just my particular problem.”
As the county approves permits one by one for new or expanded wineries, residents are asking that decision makers take a look at the bigger picture impacts each compounding project brings—things such as the changing quality of life, which is so personal it’s hard to measure in a planning document. Doing so would be an incredibly difficult, grueling task, one that the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors have tried to tackle in the past, with minimal success.
That one project
Wild Coyote sits on the northeastern edge of Adelaida, close to Paso. The road gets windier, the oaks grow denser, and the winery and tasting room signs get closer together as you drive southwest on Adelaida Road. At the region’s heart, where Vineyard Drive bisects Adelaida Road, weekend wine tasters and special events are a familiar sight.
Three decades ago, the area—historically filled with cattle ranches, dairies, horse-breeding facilities, and fruit and nut orchards—was identified as a prime place to grow wine grapes. The cool nights, rugged calcareous soil, and (normally) plentiful rainfall contribute to thriving vineyards. Adelaida’s terroir helped put Paso Robles on the map as a well-regarded wine region.
But with that notoriety comes increased demand. With that demand comes expansion, people planting a second career, and rich investors. And growth like that comes with a lot of money.
A study commissioned by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and the Economic Vitality Commission of SLO County estimated that the wine industry brings an annual $1.785 billion impact countywide, creating more than 8,100 jobs. And that data was compiled in 2006.
Residents in Adelaida’s heart see, hear, and feel everything that happens. They say traffic has increased, and studies from SLO County Public Works agree. On the weekends, wine tasters go up and down, hopping from place to place; tour busses bring in groups for events. Noise in the area has increased, residents say, and the long list of permits for events such as weddings backs up that claim.
Around a decade ago, residents led a concerted effort to try and head off the recent trend. It fizzled in 2011, and the winery expansion and event permits kept coming in. The county has issued permit by permit to wineries in the area, often in uneventful, sparsely attended hearings.
And then came Pasolivo.
Although the olive oil company was asking for the same things all the other projects in the area were granted, residents near the property quickly objected to Pasolivo’s plans to host events, demolish a symbolic old red barn, and expand its facilities.
The owners also sought to remodel a seven-bedroom house on the property—which they claimed would serve as their vacation home. In addition, a Nov. 12, 2012, press release said the family planned to convert three existing buildings into vacation rentals, which conflicts with the agricultural land-use restrictions on the property.
To top it all off, when it came time to give notice to nearby neighbors of the permit application, there was a mix-up at the SLO County Planning and Building Department and only one side of the street received notices of the hearing. Basically, the process didn’t go smoothly or quietly.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- PASTORAL POLITICS: Kim Routh, who raises livestock two doors up from Pasolivo (an olive oil company), questions the appropriateness of special events in an agricultural area.
Among all the other projects planned for Adelaida, Pasolivo drew the short straw, and residents levied a serious challenge to the project.
By the time the project came before the Board of Supervisors in July, area residents had formed the group called Save Adelaida, meeting at dining room tables and on porches to pick apart the merits of the Pasolivo project. Supervisors upheld the Planning Department’s project approval, and Save Adelaida swiftly took legal action against the county.
Save Adelaida is reluctant to say who exactly is involved in the group, but it’s clear that the region now has a loose, diverse network of people who aren’t happy with the status quo.
One of those people is Kim Routh, who lives and raises livestock two driveways up from Pasolivo. She said she started paying attention to change when Halter Ranch Vineyard was approved for expansion and events less than a year ago. She became increasingly concerned about two major things—traffic and what she considers an inappropriate use of agricultural land.
“I think I just had a bad weekend when someone almost hit me,” Routh said. “I just started paying more attention to the traffic and the activity.”
In March 2014, a truck, driven by a man she said was on his way home from work, smashed into a rock pillar at her front gate. That accident shook her up, too.
“I don’t usually get involved in stuff like this,” Routh said. “But it’s getting to be harder and harder to ignore the fact that somebody just drives their car into your front gate.”
While traffic on that road may now be a fact of life, Routh, and several others, are worried that events will bring drivers who are unfamiliar with the area’s sharp curves, have been drinking, or both.
“When Pasolivo said they were putting in an events center, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, all these people that will be on the roads drinking with all these other events,’” she said.
Glenn Marshall, development services engineer for SLO County Public Works told the Planning Commission on Sept. 24 that traffic counts on Adelaida Road increased from 1,038 average vehicles in 2006 to 1,200 in 2010. On Vineyard Drive, average vehicles increased from approximately 1,500 in 2005 to approximately 1,750 in 2014.
Lt. Scott Parker, commander of the California Highway Patrol’s Templeton station, told New Times that while traffic has increased, accidents and driving under the influence incidents have not.
For Routh and others who say they’ve seen plenty of close calls, numbers are only one way to look at it.
“People have accidents, and they don’t report it because they’ve been drinking,” Routh said. “And that happens a lot.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF KIM ROUTH
- COLLISION COURSE: After a truck smashed into the entry gate of Kim Routh’s driveway on Vineyard Drive, she started to get more concerned about an increase in Adelaida area winery construction and expansions, and the traffic that comes with it.
Steve McMasters, supervising planner at the SLO County Department of Planning and Building, said this situation highlights a classic challenge in planning. He said that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a good guiding tool to measure how projects will impact surroundings and what is acceptable, but they tend to only study measureable impacts—such as the number of cars on the road and how fast they move.
“What it’s not very good at is measuring user experience. Are the neighbors going to experience a change in character of the roadway, meaning there’s more traffic coming in these groups?” McMasters said.
So the measurable impacts to residents aren’t there. In fact, the traffic levels are still within the appropriate threshold.
The same is true for noise. CEQA can measure decibel levels but not “the annoyance factor that comes with it,” he said.
“They’re not experiencing a significant noise impact based on thresholds, but they are experiencing a change in the character of the neighborhood,” McMasters said. “What we’re hearing from residents of those areas is that the character is changing from these uses.”
Those in the vineyard and winery business aren’t convinced that the changes are such a big deal.
“People move out to the county and they’ve got this pastoral, idyllic, Hollywood scenario in their brain, and they like the vineyards, I think, and they like the walnut tress, but that’s not during harvest,” Parrish told New Times. “And then all of a sudden they’re saying ‘What are all these farmers doing here?’”
When it came to Manucci’s concerns about his project, Parrish said most of the issues his neighbor raised were related to the agricultural side of the project. After all, they haven’t even built the tasting room or started hosting events.
“For 90 years that’s what we’ve been doing out there,” Parrish said. “He calls it congestion, I call it agriculture. There’s a lot of congestion out there: pickers, farm laborers, loading up the trucks going down the road, tractors being moved.”
Routh agrees that certain kinds of congestion come with normal day-to-day farming operations, but in her eyes, the issue of expansion brings up the question of what is appropriate for an agricultural area.
“These are farm-to-market roads, and they’re narrow, and they’re windy, and they’re unforgiving,” Routh said. “When you start having a grocery store, or a wedding venue, and you’re bringing all these things in that aren’t agriculturally produced, that you didn’t produce on your own land, then you’re crossing the line legally. You’re also bringing in a whole lot more traffic.”
One of the places Routh is referring to is Halter Ranch Vineyards, which is currently building a new facility that will host a wine club members-only tasting room, a museum, and a convenience store.
The Halter Ranch property falls under the Williamson Act. And the legality of putting a museum and convenience store on the land is not cut and dry.
Under the California Land Conservation Act of 1965, better known as the Williamson Act, properties that enter into contract with the California Department of Conservation get a property tax break if they keep agricultural land operational. The program is designed to protect agricultural land and keep it in production—which is considered to have social and economic benefits. What sort of development is allowed under that contract can sometimes be open to interpretation, and in those cases, the decision ultimately falls to the county.
The SLO County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office questioned those aspects of Halter Ranch Vineyards’ new facilities, but nonetheless, the project was approved under the auspice that the project contributed to the area’s agricultural nature.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- MOVING ON: Alison Denlinger formed the Adelaida Area Association a decade ago when the winery next door to her, Opolo Vineyards, began expanding. Denlinger eventually sold her property to the owners of Opolo, including this swath of walnut trees.
Jamie Kirk, president of Kirk Consulting, who has represented several businesses that hold event permits in the Adelaida area, said that agricultural land uses boil down to one component, which the county has clearly interpreted as acceptable—“visitor serving uses” within agriculture. Essentially, a tasting room is basically like a roadside stand that sells vegetables or fruit or anything else that’s produced there. A vineyard with a tasting room is tantamount to a pumpkin patch or a u-pick apple farm.
Hosting events on these properties is just part of that process, said Patricia Wilmore, government affairs coordinator for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
“It gives the winery a chance to have more direct-to-consumer contact,” Wilmore said.
People like Routh say it’s not winery-focused events—industry-wide events, pick-up parties, wine-maker dinners—that bother her; it’s the larger special events like weddings that are of concern.
Wilmore said that weddings are basically another way for wineries to interface with consumers.
“In other words, the weddings that are hosted, now you have a whole new group of people that have been exposed to your wines,” she said.
Been down that road
Fighting against weddings, traffic, and noise is something residents like Alison Denlinger went through a decade ago. At the time, she was living on Vineyard Drive. A few wineries started having events, including Jada Vineyard and Winery right down the road. Then, the land next door to her was purchased, and Opolo Vineyards was founded. The new owners built their winery, including one building that was unpermitted, and started hosting events.
SLO County eventually caught up with them, said Senior Planner Karen Nall, and brought Opolo Vineyards into compliance. But the events continued, and Opolo kept looking to expand. Those plans included a consideration to build an eight-room bed and breakfast, though those were scapped in the early stages of the process.
“When [Opolo Vineyards co-owner Rick Quinn] first started the winery, they said they’d only be open on weekends, and it’s going to be very small,” Denlinger said. “And then, like many of them, they just progressed.”
Denlinger eventually became one of three adjacent property owners to sell her home and move elsewhere. Quinn did not return a call for comment. Denlinger said she saw the writing on the wall, which told a story of more to come. She formed the Adelaida Area Association with some of her neighbors.
“That was the first time that the neighborhood got up in arms,” said Elizabeth Rolph, who has a 30-acre, mostly dry-farmed vineyard with her husband.
Denlinger, Rolph, and others in their neighborhood teamed up with residents in other parts of the county who were experiencing similar issues with nearby event centers, namely in Avila Beach and Santa Margarita. They formed a coalition called the Ag Tourism and Direct Marketing Working Group to address the bigger issue of events in the county.
The goal was to reign in “uncontrolled” events in rural areas, while maintaining a focus on preserving agricultural land and its economic viability. That included a program to enable agriculturalists to host farm stays, educational events, tours, and other forms of agricultural tourism.
In Kirk’s (Kirk Consulting) eyes, Denlinger became “a fixture in opposing wineries on Vineyard Drive.”
The group pitched recommendations to the powers that be, and they went through the supervisors’ Agricultural Liaison Advisory Board, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- A TASTE OF CONTENTION : Opolo was one of the first wineries on Vineyard Drive to add facilities for events to its property, much to the chagrin of neighbors.
Addressing the topic of events wasn’t and isn’t easy, in part because the county has one ordinance specific to wineries—which allows wine tasting and events—another governing events at places that aren’t wineries, and no ordinance related to vacation rentals.
The goal was to bring everything under one ordinance and create a sort of tiered system that would regulate events while still encouraging other (less noisy) agricultural money making ventures.
Representatives of the wedding and wine industries joined others who wanted to host events and made their collective voice heard. Their message: Events make up a crucial part of the local economy, and at the time, the economy was still climbing out of the recession
Naturally, supervisors were cautious, and while they did pass an ordinance to regulate vacation rentals in coastal areas, they generally sided with the status quo.
Little by little, county decision makers dissected different parts of the events issue. The last vote came in late 2011—current Supervisors Bruce Gibson, Adam Hill, and Frank Mecham were sitting on the board—after an exhaustive review and input from stakeholders. Creating a comprehensive events ordinance was tabled, and the board passed the issue on to the Economic Vitality Corporation and the SLO Farm Bureau, where it essentially evaporated, or as Hill said, the issue went back into orbit.
It was just too complex for stakeholders to come to a consensus on, and politically it was too contentious to touch.
Mecham’s Planning Commission appointee Jim Irving—who was involved in that review process—told New Times: “I would say that the reason it didn’t go, because like so many other things in this county, making a one-size-fits-all ordinance is difficult if not impossible.”
For three of the supervisors who passed on making a decision in 2011, the issue hasn’t gone away.
At the time, Gibson characterized it as one of the most complex land-use issues the county faced. And, as Mecham put it then—and recently, during review of the Pasolivo project—they were just kicking the can farther down the road by not doing anything.
Despite the kerfuffle that surrounded it, supervisors approved the Pasolivo project with a reluctant 5-0 vote. In doing so, they acknowledged that there was a larger problem present in the area, and that they needed to revisit the issue.
“This is not the applicant’s fault. This is not the appellant’s fault. This is our fault,” Mecham said at the board’s July 7 meeting.
At that meeting, supervisors directed staff to bring back options to pursue the bigger issue. The options are supposed to be presented to the supervisors on Oct. 13.
“What I’m hearing out there is it has gotten progressively worse in terms of the traffic on the road and the impact to neighbors and that sort. I think the tipping point has come where we see more and we see more and there’s basically no rules that will be applied to them,” Mecham told New Times. “I think it’s gotten to a point where we as a board need to take it on and start figuring out how are we going to deal with this, because it can’t go on unending like this.”
Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLARIFICATION: Opolo Vineyards owner Richard Quinn asked New Times to clarify statements made in the Oct. 8 article “Trouble on the wine trail.” Quinn said the only thing constructed without a permit at Opolo was a storage facility added to the already existing winery. OCT. 15, 2015.
CORRECTION: The Oct. 8 article “Trouble on the wine trail,” incorrectly states the number of rooms in a lodging facility proposed by Opolo Vineyards. While Opolo pitched an eight-room bed and breakfast during an early round of planning, that proposal was later scrapped. OCT. 15, 2015.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay