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San Diego Superior Court Rules in Favor of Tiered Winery Ordinance

Special thanks to Dennis from Eagles Nest Winery in San Diego, California for pointing out this new update with respect to a suit filed by San Diego Citizenry Group challenging the San Diego County Tiered Winery Ordinance under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (See prior On Reserve entry Group Sues San Diego County on New Winery Policy). (See also Dennis’ post discussing the matter at Update: Politics of Wine — Tasting Rooms Vindicated in San Diego Wine Country — the Tiered Winery Ordinance of 2010.) In September 2010, the San Diego Citizenry Group brought suit against San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors challenging the new ordinance approved on August 4, 2010. “This hard-fought ordinance was over four years in the making, and was finally passed unanimously by the Supervisors.” (Id.) The ordinance reportedly creates a more manageable process for wine growers to open wine-tasting rooms and create small wineries in unincorporated parts of the region. In filing suit against the County, the San Diego Citizenry Group alleged that the ordinance was passed without a proper environmental study and indicated that San Diego residents were concerned about the additional traffic flow and the amount of water the wineries would require for operation. However, in April 2011, the Superior Court of California ruled that the county met its burden under the CEQA.

On Thursday, April 14, 2011, after a hearing by both sides, Judge Timothy Taylor of the Superior Court of California issued a temporary ruling in favor of the county after a hearing took place in his courtroom. On Friday, April 15, 2011, following the issuance of the tentative hearing, both parties were given an opportunity to plead their cases based on issues raised in the tentative hearing. After the rebuttal, the judge indicated he would take the points of each party into consideration and issue a final ruling. In his final decision, the judge ruled in favor of the county. Judge Taylor stated in his opinion, “The court find that the case lacks merit, and therefore denies same. The court also orders petitioner to pay the cost of preparation of the extensive administrative record.”

The main issue of the disagreement was whether the county of San Diego, in creating the ordinance, properly complied with the CEQA, which entailed the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) (See §21061 of the CEQA for the definition of an EIR). Judge Taylor’s ruling cited case law that maintains the county did, indeed, comply with the CEQA. In his ruling, Mr. Taylor wrote that, “Having reviewed the EIR, the court finds that it suffices as an informational document. The Board of Supervisors was, by the EIR, adequately informed about the consequences of its decisions. The public (including petitioner) was provided with adequate information regarding the decisions of their elected leaders. That is where the judicial inquiry under CEQA ends; any further remedy for petitioner (or those who share its views regarding wineries in the backcountry of San Diego County) lies at the ballot box when the Supervisors stand for re-election.” (Id.) In addition, the court found “that the county made adequate inquiry into possible future development of wineries, that its conclusions regarding mitigation measures was adequate and based on substantial evidence, and that the county properly identified, compared, analyzed and found infeasible the project alternatives.”(See Court Rules in Favor of County’s Tiered Winery Ordinance.)

The San Diego Citizenry Group was ordered to reimburse the County $16,444.00 for “the cost of preparation of the extensive administrative record.” (Id.) Whereas Carolyn Harris, the general counsel for Ramona Valley Vineyard Association, asserts that she is pleased with the outcome and is excited for the opening of additional tasting rooms in San Diego County, Chris Polychron, who represented the San Diego Citizenry Group, is disappointed and is considering the alternative options of his client.

This strong win for San Diego County wineries, however, does not seem to be the end of wine politics. Interestingly, “[b]arring an appeal, area wineries continue to face costly and prohibitive building permit mandates by the County Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU). This is the next issue that the Supervisors will need to address. Sadly, the local building industry would benefit from these projects if excessive standards were not forward upon Boutique Wineries.” (See Update: Politics of Wine — Tasting Rooms Vindicated in San Diego Wine Country — the Tiered Winery Ordinance of 2010.)

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended as legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship results. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice.

Lindsey A. Zahn


Lindsey is the founder and author of On Reserve: A Wine Law Blog. She is an alcohol beverage and food attorney and is admitted to the New York State Bar.

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