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Law Aims to Shield Temecula Wineries

Riverside County is expected to pass rules today that would slow housing development, which threatens to crowd out vintners.

January 24, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Tony and Olivia Papa left their Claremont home in 1999 to plant grapes on a 7-acre spread in Temecula's wine country, where horses trotted by and hot-air balloons skimmed the horizon.

A short time later, they noticed construction popping up in their pastoral southwest Riverside County community. So they launched four petition drives over the last year and a half to clamp down on development in the rural enclave.

"We've got to keep the damn homes out of here," said Tony Papa, 62, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

With their first grape harvest behind them, the Papas can breathe easier: The Riverside County Board of Supervisors is expected to adopt an ordinance today that would protect vineyards from being plowed under for new homes, and also ensure that winemaking remains vibrant in Temecula.

The restrictions apply to the region's unincorporated 7,500-acre citrus-vineyard zoning area outside Temecula city limits.

The law would require wineries to occupy at least 10 acres; wineries also must keep 75% of their land devoted to grapevines and have the capacity to produce 3,500 gallons of wine each year. Locally bottled wine must be made from at least 75% Riverside County grapes.

Individual new homes must have 10-acre lots, although developers can cluster homes on smaller parcels if half of the total land is set aside for growing grapes. The ordinance, modeled after a similar law in Napa Valley, stipulates lot sizes for bed-and-breakfasts and hotels, and adds landscaping, lighting and architecture guidelines.

The hilly, scenic city in southwest Riverside County has exploded with new residents and tourists in the last decade, so many local winemakers hope that the new law, effective 30 days after adoption, will help preserve the region's agricultural character.

"We are threatened by residential development," Phil Baily of Baily Vineyard & Winery, the outgoing president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Assn., told supervisors this month.

The group, representing about 20 area wineries, has pushed lawmakers to pass the ordinance since it was first introduced last June.

Temecula, off Interstate 15 near the San Diego County line, has become a popular weekend trip for hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, drawn by wine tasting, balloon rides, antiques shops and mild weather. The prosperous city has swelled from 27,000 residents in 1990 to more than 82,000 today, according to the census, and close to a dozen new wineries have plans to open in the region.

"We have something that must be protected," said Supervisor Jeff Stone, whose district includes the citrus-vineyard area that the ordinance governs.

"We need to act now; otherwise the wine country will succumb to economic pressure and land values," Stone said at a board meeting earlier this month, where the board unanimously approved the ordinance's introduction.

The new law "saves Temecula wine country from turning into a lot of estate lots with inadequate crops of grapes for the future," said Temecula Mayor Ron Roberts. "It's a destination point for all of Southern California and further."

And grape-growers like the Papas, as well as winemakers, were concerned about the region's future, Roberts said.

"All of a sudden the vineyards were either being bulldozed under or there were 'For Sale' signs.... [Residents] were very nervous," Roberts said.

The final draft of the law comes after a series of at-times contentious hearings and planning meetings, with opponents arguing that such specific regulations micromanage local businesses.

"The economic viability has been stripped away," said vintner David C. Hunt, owner of Hunt Cellars, of his undeveloped 12-acre parcel off Rancho California Road, Temecula wine country's main drag. He complains that his plans for a restaurant and bed and breakfast have been scuttled by the new rules, and he can't use his company's Paso Robles wine in Riverside County bottles.

Members of the local winegrowers association are "trying to protect themselves from competition," Hunt told the board this month. "Why should the government tell the wineries how much wine to produce to be a winery?"

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