For years, a handful of remote wine-tasting rooms have operated outside Woodinville city limits, to the enjoyment of wine lovers seeking a bucolic ambiance and to the anger of residents and advocates who say the businesses’ existence threatens the nearby Sammamish Valley.
They’ll continue to operate – if they can meet the revised requirements approved Wednesday by the Metropolitan King County Council.
The council voted 5-4 to approve the code update, which redefines how the county regulates wineries, distilleries and breweries in unincorporated King County. The new legislation concludes more than a year of work by county officials on regulations that were last updated 16 years ago, before the region’s population – and wine industry – boomed.
The updates apply to establishments outside city limits throughout King County, but the debate over the future of the wineries and tasting rooms was centered in Woodinville, home to 130 wineries, tasting rooms, microbreweries and cideries. City officials believe the lack of enforcement put the businesses operating outside city limits at a competitive advantage over the ones within Woodinville. It also generated concern about the future of the neighboring Sammamish Valley, which is protected farmland. The tasting rooms that have faced the most criticism are along the edge of the valley, in an area designated as a buffer between farmland and residential neighborhoods.
King County Council Vice Chair Claudia Balducci and councilmembers Joe McDermott, Pete von Reichbauer, Kathy Lambert and Reagan Dunn voted in favor of the legislation. Chair Rod Dembowski and council members Larry Gossett, Dave Upthegrove and Jeanne Kohl-Welles voted against it.
Balducci described the updates as a way to better regulate the existing businesses throughout the county, which have operated in a gray area with King County zoning laws that often weren’t enforced.
“The result is a bit of a ‘wild west’ out in the Sammamish Valley, where some people are taking advantage, that is true, we’re not blind,” Balducci said. “… but others are trying to run legal businesses that are not damaging, that are allowed and that are not harming the farmland. What we are trying to do today is solve the problem.”
Dozens of critics, however, painted a different picture of the wineries and tasting rooms and what they see as the future of the Sammamish Valley. During a public hearing before the vote, they warned of the area becoming a “dangerous pub crawl” if the proposal passed, which would “open up a Pandora’s box of commercialization” on farmland that would quickly disappear.
“If this ordinance passes, you need to go down to the Sammamish Valley, and take pictures for future generations,” said Gary Mattson, who lives in Woodinville.
Many wore stickers from Friends of Sammamish Valley, a well-organized citizens’ group that’s fought against the operations outside of Woodinville, which founder Serena Glover, who spoke at the hearing, calls “illegally operating bars.”
Balducci refuted the critics’ claims that the changes would allow additional tasting rooms or wineries to proliferate in agricultural areas, noting that the county plans to add a code-compliance officer and prosecuting attorney who will focus only on the wineries, distilleries, breweries and tasting rooms.
“There is nothing in any of this that allows development that is not there today,” she said in an interview.
It’s possible that some operators will have to shut down because they can’t comply with the new guidelines, she added. One new rule, for example, requires wineries, breweries and distilleries operating in an agricultural zone to grow 60% of their products onsite.
Members of the opposition groups say they plan to file appeals to fight the changes, which will take effect by the end of the month.
“This legislation just starts the massive erosion,” of the area, said Melissa Onsum Brown, who owns a small farm near Woodinville. “This will keep going on. We’re not going to take it sitting down.”