Point Reyes winemaker wins permits in appeal

10/26/2017

The Marin County Planning Commission on Monday showed fierce support for a one-man winemaking business getting off the ground in Point Reyes Station. 

In a 4 to 1 vote, commissioners overturned a county decision in July to deny permits to Inverness resident Avi Deixler to operate Absentee Winery out of a barn on the Gallagher Ranch.

“It seems to me this is exactly the type of thing that we want to support,” commissioner Margot Biehle said. “Small winemaker, small input, small output, very light use of the property and an agricultural use that we have required for western Marin,” she said in refence to the county’s prioritization of protecting agriculture in the coastal zone.  

Yet county staff will include a number of minor conditions in Mr. Deixler’s use and coastal permits—a nod to both the dissenting commissioner, Don Dickenson, and county staff, who worried the operation could set a precedent for businesses wishing to truck in water. 

The permits allow for Absentee Winery to operate out of a 1,780-square-foot defunct milking barn, yielding no more than 3,000 cases of wine a year. Mr. Deixler, who traveled from France to Australia to Oregon to learn the trade, plans to source his grapes from growers in Mendocino County who are “beyond organic.” He said his product will eschew the additives and preservatives that are commonplace in the industry. 

“True wine, with grapes as the only ingredient, does not give you a headache if you have a second glass. It’s a journey of flavor that you just fall into,” said Mr. Deixler, who named his winery “Absentee” to reflect his stripped-down approach.

This summer, his proposal was denied by the Deputy Zoning Administrator—the first threshold in the county’s permitting process—on two counts. First, the administrator said plans to have potable water delivered to a 1,500-gallon holding tank on the property, rather than sourcing water from the site itself, “would not meet the minimum health and safety requirements.” 

Second, Mr. Deixler’s sewage plan proposed using an existing, but unpermitted, bathroom on the ranch and storing wastewater produced by the winemaking process in a 2,500-gallon holding tank to haul offsite to a permitted facility.

It was the first count—the need to truck water to the site—that proved stickiest this week. Back in July, Environmental Health Services suggested three alternative water plans for the project: drilling a new well, permitting an existing well on the ranch or seeking a new service from the North Marin Water District.

Mr. Deixler explained at the time that these options were both too expensive and not justified for a business of his scale. The civil engineer he hired to help with his application estimated that the alternatives could cost between $50,000 and $60,000 up front, compared to the $1,000 to $2,000 it would cost him annually to truck in water. 

Mr. Deixler said his startup costs already totaled $50,000, including around $24,000 on application materials for the county’s permits.

Underscoring the small scale of his business, Mr. Deixler estimates he would use a 1:1 water-to-wine ratio, which is a far cry from the 5:1 ratio the county used to determine that he needed a 1,500-gallon tank, he said. 

Both county staff and Environmental Health Services recommended rejecting his appeal at Monday’s hearing. 

But Commissioner Biehle challenged staff to “point to any mandate requiring where the [water] source needs to come from” for the project site, or to “any exclusion for bringing in potable water from external sources.” 

Though they looked, county staff could not find a suitable answer during the hearing. 

Commissioner John Eller, who chairs the Planning Commission, seconded Commissioner Biehle’s views, saying it was unclear “what public purpose, environmental or otherwise, is being served by requiring the water to be at the source.”

Commissioner Biehle said the “argument that it has never been done before, and therefore it shall never be, is one that encourages stagnation. In this 21st century, where we are trying to encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship and we want people to think in new ways about environmental stewardship and agriculture, we need to be somewhat nimble in our thinking about codes and how they apply to new uses and new permits.”

Three other members of the committee echoed her support, agreeing that the fact that trucking water was uncommon in Marin did not make it problematic (Chris Desser, the commissioner for District Four, was absent Monday). 

Yet Commissioner Dickenson, who represents the county at large, disagreed. “I actually think this would be a very unfortunate precedent. My involvement in the county goes back almost 40 years now, and I don’t know of any case where the county has approved a use like this,” he said. 

Commissioner Dickenson suggested bringing in other experts within the county for another perspective before the commission acted. 

He also highlighted that Mr. Deixler’s business is one of agricultural processing, not agricultural production, since he is not growing the grapes himself. Agricultural production, unlike agricultural processing, is a principally permitted land use in the county and doesn’t require a use permit.

County staff were aligned with these arguments, and questioned the precedent that an approval might set. “If we go ahead on something like this, what about someone in Bolinas, or elsewhere in the county, who thinks, ‘Gosh, this is onerous. I’m going to truck in my own water?” the county’s principal planner, Curtis Havel, asked. 

Ms. Biehle responded that she thought the commission could come back and argue that this was a specific decision for a specific business use; the three other commissioners agreed. 

Commissioner Eller asked the representative from Environmental Health Services if the department would challenge a decision to approve the permits. The representative replied, “Likely so.” After the hearing, the assistant director for the Community Development Agency, Tom Lai, clarified that no county agency would appeal the decision. 

In the end, the approval of the permits was made contingent upon a number of conditions, at Commissioner Dickenson’s request. Among other things, the schedules for water delivery and testing of the water in the holding tank must be finalized and the septic system for the Gallagher’s residence permitted. In addition, Mr. Deixler must confirm that there will be no wine tasting, onsite sales or other employees besides himself, as he proposed. 

Finally, commissioners requested that Environmental Health Services be consulted to confirm that the water in the holding tank would remain potable after delivery, with the hope that any disputes would be resolved.