So, you’re all set there in your little piece of paradise. Your place is on a hillside overlooking Carmel Valley, perhaps, or in one of the canyons of Corral de Tierra or out there along River Road or the North County hills. You’ve got an acre of unincorporated property, maybe more. Life is good.
And because you’re a smart one, you checked on the zoning before you bought. You were comforted to see that all the neighboring property is zoned “low-density residential.” That means large parcels, nice houses, maybe a few chickens or horses and a promise that none of your neighbors is going to open a store or a machine shop or a party barn where people hold weddings and the like. All is well.
Well, maybe not.
According to the paperwork and correspondence underlying a controversy winding through the hallways of the Monterey County planning bureaucracy, it appears that “low-density residential” means just that unless your neighbor is in the wine business and wants to be in the events business. Once upon a time, that exception wouldn’t have mattered much because not too many folks hereabouts were in the wine business. But the next time you drive down Carmel Valley Road, take a close look at the vines and the signs. You’ll see that it is becoming a little Napa Valley with wine shops and tasting rooms blooming like pinot vines in the spring.
At the center of this land-use fight is the Hilltop Ranch vineyard at 62 E. Carmel Valley Road. You may have noticed the little sign there on your left as you head east out of the village, just past Rippling River and Holman Ranch. Despite the Carmel Valley Road address, the entrance to the property is actually off a private road that branches to the north from the public thoroughfare. Monterey County’s chief planner, Carl Holm, decided without any open public input that although the vineyard is zoned for low-density residential, it would be OK for it to host special events such as commercial wine-tasting dinners, partly because the property is owned by the same people who own the Cima Collina tasting room in the village.
Holm opted to allow the traffic-including and noise-creating use, without any specific limits on frequency, without public notice or hearing, by issuing what he calls a director’s interpretation. That’s where he rather than the general plan or the county’s zoning ordinance decides how property can be used.
What it boils down to is that Holm believes it is OK for Hilltop to hold an unlimited number of events because vineyards are allowed in low-density residential neighborhoods, wine-tasting is closely associated with vineyards and gatherings, and wine-tasting sometimes leads to fairly large events.
Holm says he hasn’t done anything unusual, even though he granted approval for the special events after the vineyard had been denied permits for such uses on three occasions. In one of those applications, the vineyard operators proposed entertaining 250 guests at a wedding.
Under Holm’s ruling, the crowd would be limited to 75 at a time but there would be no set limit on how often events could be held. Attorney Tony Lombardo, representing a dozen or so Hilltop neighbors, notes in his appeal letter that 75 people can easily become 90 or more.
In another appeal to the county, a lawyer representing the Carmel Valley Association argues that Holm’s ruling essentially rezones the property without public hearing and allows a list of allowable uses far more generous than what is spelled out in the county codes — all because the 20-acre Hilltop property includes some four acres of grapes.
Holm maintains he acted within his authority.
“Staff interprets codes every day with every customer and every project,” he told the Partisan in an exchange of emails. “Codes cannot be completely exhaustive since new ideas present new challenges not addressed in the code.”
Holm noted the low-density residential designation, LDR, allows for farming as well as “stands for the sale of ag products,” which presumably means those little structures from which family farmers sometimes sell cherries and apples.
He said he also determined that some type of marketing events were typically held in vineyards and that he reported that to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors last winter. It wasn’t clear whether he mentioned during that report that most of the vineyards that hold marketing events are in agricultural zones, which accommodate more commercial uses than what are contemplated in residential zones.
Lombardo wrote that Holm grants Hillside too much leeway. He noted that the zoning ordinance allows “viticulture” in residential zones, which means the cultivation of grapes, but it does not allow for wine production or commercial wine tasting.
Lombardo also noted that the county’s painstakingly constructed 2010 general plan allows for a “wine corridor” of wineries and tasting rooms along River Road overlooking the Salinas Valley but conspicuously does not create such a corridor along Carmel Valley Road.
Late last year, Holm told the Board of Supervisors that his staff is working on a new set of policies to regulate event spaces in unincorporated areas, language that would clarify to what extent commercial gatherings would be allowed in residential and other limited-use zones. It is a growing issue countywide but particularly in Carmel Valley with its abundance of commercial and backyard vineyards. Holm said last week, however, that the board later instructed him to focus first on completing policy language on short-term rentals in the county.
Holm’s stance is being challenged separately by Lombardo’s clients and the Carmel Valley Association, represented by attorney Molly Erickson.
In a note to its membership, the Carmel Valley Association argued that Holm’s interpretation violates state law and county code.
“It provides an incentive for everybody in the low-density residential zone to plant a vineyard so they can have special events. It corrupts the public process,” the association offered. “If allowed to stand, the Holm Letter will cause serious long-term land use and environmental effects and will harm the public’s trust in Monterey County government.”
In the association’s appeal to the Planning Commission, Erickson suggests Holm provided special treatment to Hilltop by providing significant guidance to the vineyard’s lawyer, John Bridges. (The Partisan invited a response from Bridges early this month but has not received one.)
Erickson noted that Holm had sent three emails offering advice to Bridges and his decision ultimately “rewards the applicant for private lobbying and private meetings with Mr. Holm.”
“The applicant’s representatives repeatedly peppered Mr. Holm with various arguments and claims as to why the proposed special events use at the Hilltop Ranch site should be approved. Mr. Holm repeatedly communicated directly with the applicant representatives, attorney John Bridges, land use consultant Joel Panzer, and Cima Collina events coordinator Michele Gogliucci. Mr. Holm communicated privately with them to come to a private agreement as to special events uses at the site. Mr. Holm did not inform the public or the Planning Commission of the private communications.”
Erickson continued, “On February 11, 2016, Mr. Holm wrote to Mr. Bridges giving ‘guidelines’ for special events on which Hilltop Ranch LLC could rely ‘until we get to the commission.’ Mr. Holm’s ‘guidelines’ recommended a limit of 20 visitors at a time, allowed the use of a shuttle to bring visitors to the site, and stated ‘no weddings,’ ‘no advertised events’ and ‘no portable toilets.’ He recommended that the property owner not make long term investment plans, and suggested that Hilltop Ranch amend its application to include any issues Hilltop wanted to include in its special event operations. Mr. Holm promised that if Hilltop operated within the ‘guidelines,’ the county ‘will not view it as a violation (even if we receive a complaint) and the current [code violation] case will be placed on hold until the permit process has been completed.’”
Despite the cautions from Holm, Hilltop “did hold weddings and publish advertisements for special events as shown in the county files, including mass emails inviting the public and county employees to events,” Erickson wrote.
According to Erickson, Holm repeatedly urged the applicant to make a request for a “private administrative interpretation instead of going through the public review process. Mr. Holm wanted to accommodate the special events use and proposed to go about giving permission in a nonpublic forum.”
Allowing Holm’s directive to stand, Lombardo wrote, would set a precedent allowing an unlimited number of vineyards to become commercial events spaces without consideration for the neighbors or the impacts on traffic, water and other resources.
Hilltop seeks “to create highly intensive commercial uses in a residential neighborhood,” Lombardo wrote. “If allowed to proceed, any resident could most likely justify becoming an ‘event center’ so that they too could make money from their property investment no matter how large or small. The serene rural nature of particularly Carmel Valley would be permanently destroyed. Therefore, to maintain the serene rural nature of Carmel Valley’s and Monterey County’s residential areas, the interpretation should be vacated.”