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Wines, vines and equines: Community plan headed for Riverside County board

A proposal affecting nearly 20,000 acres in Temecula’s wine country could change zoning regulations for future development, dividing the wine country into residential, equestrian and vineyard districts. Photo courtesy of Temecula Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau

The term “Wine Country” has for the last few decades been a part of the Temecula-area lexicon.

Before the end of the year, it could take on a grander meaning, as Riverside County may pass a plan that could shape growth for the destination east of Temecula proper. A Sept. 24 public hearing of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors -- lasting nearly four hours -- didn't bring a vote on passage or failure of the proposal, but instead sent it back to the Riverside Planning Commission for a re-examination in November.

Too many unresolved issues remained to move forward on a vote, the supervisors indicated, including certain noise and event restrictions on wineries and how to move forward with the plan's network of equestrian trails that might cross private lands.

The supervisors have tentatively planned to have it back for a second public hearing at their Dec. 3 meeting.

Five years after its earliest proposal, the Temecula Valley Wine Country Community Plan stands potentially as a blueprint for growth in its could-be governed area. Its purpose, proponents say, is to enhance the quality of life for existing and future residents in its planning area, while providing opportunities for continued development and expansion of winery and equestrian operations.

George Johnson, Riverside County’s chief assistant county executive officer, said the long-term interests of the area are better served when viewing the Wine Country region from a broader perspective.

“It makes better planning sense to address it from a comprehensive approach rather than a piecemeal approach,” Johnson said.

Using the current Citrus-Vineyard zone as an example, a winery can go on as small as a 10-acre piece of land, while also incorporating special occasion facilities -- such as a restaurant or event building.

“In the new plan, it will be a 20-acre minimum,” Johnson said. "The plan, in our opinion, reduces some of the impacts. Residential properties can [now] go down as small as two-and-a-half acres, where under the plan, the minimum residential size will be five acres.”

Olivia Barnes, a legislative team member in the office of Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone -- who is considered the plan’s early architect – said the shaping of the document has reflected what area stakeholders indicated to be important.

“The idea was to build consensus,” she said. “It is a very large plan.”

In the build-up to the supervisors' September meeting, equestrian groups and residents sought protections for their lifestyles, while businesses looked to ensure land uses wouldn’t prevent them from expanding or continuing their activity.

Business-related noise from wineries and traffic was a top concern.

Addressing the issue, the proposal would require larger lot sizes for residential subdivisions and incidental commercial uses as compared to current requirements. It also promotes clustered development and would require larger portions of individual projects to be set aside as vineyard or equestrian land.

The changes would incorporate an area totaling nearly 20,000 acres -- an area which in part is now made of the equestrian-friendly Valle de los Caballos Policy Area, as well as the Citrus-Vineyard Policy Area. A new Wine Country Policy Area would replace for future development the Valle de los Caballos and Citrus-Vineyard areas, and incorporate additional land to their northeast. It would be subdivided into three districts: residential, equestrian and winery.

“It’s a compromise,” Johnson said. “Right now, what you have is a Wine Country where you have residential properties in and around the vineyards. So those wineries, when they have some of these special events, whether it’s music outside or whatever it might be -- the sound travels out there. There’s an inherent conflict there.”

In the residential district, the project density yield for residential tract developments would not be allowed to exceed one dwelling unit per five acres, while elsewhere in the policy area, the yield would not exceed one unit per 10 acres. The equestrian district would allow incidental uses in conjunction with commercial equestrian establishments on lots larger than 10 acres.

A January 2011 Riverside County Planning Department draft of the proposed 2035 build-out of the winery district assumed up to 88 wineries, including the 2010 baseline of 32 it noted already existed. The entire proposed Wine Country Policy Area -- now home to more than 40 wineries -- would include 105 wineries at build-out, including six in the equestrian district and 11 in the residential district.

New wineries maintaining on-site vineyards on 10 acres or more will be required to use 75 percent of the project site to grow grapes. Such a winery would also be held to a minimum production capacity of 3,500 gallons of wine per year.

Johnson said that the large plan and a related $55 million three-phase plan for area sewer additions could spur what is almost a stalled effort now to further grow Temecula’s wine industry.

A finding in recent years of high salinity in the Wine Country water table led to strict regulations on future wineries’ allowable waste discharges.

The stricter rules have had an impact on more than just water.

“Right now, we have a de facto building moratorium in place, because you can’t discharge more than so much waste into the water table,” Johnson said.

Vineyards can still be developed and wineries built, but discharge levels would have to top out at about 1,200 gallons per day -- the rough limits of a conventional septic system.

Johnson said that makes construction of pertinent facilities alongside a winery difficult, as even a typical home discharges about 1,000 gallons a day.

“You could put in a winery with a tasting room, but that would be it,” Johnson said. “We think that by adoption of the Wine Country Plan and construction of the sewer, we will be promoting economic development.”

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