Guests enjoy a glass of wine at Callaghan Vineyards’ tasting room in Elgin. The County’s proposed Winery District Master Plan would benefit the area’s wineries, but many residents are concerned about the zoning changes that the plan may create. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Santa Cruz County intends to develop a Winery District Master Plan and Overlay District which it hopes will enable additional economic development in the wine country of northeast Santa Cruz County. On Feb. 7, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a request for proposal (RFP) to have a consultant prepare a market study and a winery master plan, including a land use overlay district. 

There are currently 19 wineries operating in the Sonoita-Elgin area. This planning effort, focused on northeast Santa Cruz County, is the first phase of a larger regional planning effort, the Southern Arizona Cuisine Tourism Initiative. The Initiative will be paid for by a $300,000 federal grant from the Economic Development Authority of the Department of Commerce. The first phase will begin in April 2023 and should be completed by April 2024. 

As stated in the RFP “cuisine tourism is defined as leveraging the County’s leisure-related activities that are a natural fit with making the regional wine presence more impactful and leveraging increased tourism spending/overnight visitation. As a strategy, a cuisine tourism initiative is intended to build on the natural economic strengths and beauty of the area; this provides a strategy for resilience for Santa Cruz County, which has not captured its fair share of the growing Arizona tourism sector.” 

Frank Dillon, the County’s Community Development Director, says “overlay districts are commonly used in land use as a mechanism to target and incentivize certain types of development in specified area (within a boundary), while also managing the growth, land use and other community impacts. Land use overlay districts can be used to achieve a variety of goals, such as preserving natural resources, protecting historic sites, or promoting affordable housing. In many cases, these districts are created in response to community concerns about the potential impacts of certain types of land uses or activities on the surrounding area.” 

The County RFP seeks “a detailed market analysis, drawing upon qualitative survey data from local wineries and allied industries, as well as quantitative economic data, to assess opportunities for cuisine tourism. The County also seeks to create a master plan and land use overlay district, enabling local businesses and residents within the winery district and Sonoita area to shape land use decisions that impact them, while linking the winery district economic activity to the County’s retail, tourism and travel sectors.” 

There will be a community stakeholder process to receive input from residents and business owners on the master plan and overlay district. Some winery owners are supportive of the planning process. However, some residents and other wineries are opposed to any the changes an overlay district could make to the general rural (GR) zoning of Sonoita and Elgin. 

Todd Bostock, one of the owners of Dos Cabezas WineWorks thinks the County’s decision to create the Winery Master Plan and Overlay District is a step in the right direction. He says “there has been some friction over time between wineries and the County concerning somewhat rigid “legacy” land use regulations. A thoughtful planning process seems just the right approach.” 

Bostock went on to say Santa Cruz County as a whole saw significant decreases in tourism spending during the COVID-19 pandemic, but business was stronger than ever at the wineries. He believes the County sees the opportunities to increase revenues coming from wineries and ancillary businesses and that’s why they secured funds to complete the winery master plan and land use overlay district. “I don’t see this area becoming the next Napa Valley, but I do see the benefits of growth that fits the character of the region and supports more jobs,” he said. 

Bill Schock, a local rancher whose grandfather homesteaded in Elgin in 1913, has a different viewpoint. He opposes any changes in the rural zoning of the area, which he says is consistent with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and with the wishes of the residents of the Sonoita Elgin area. Last spring Schock testified before the County’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, stating his opposition to changes in development guidelines requirements for the Los Milics Winery Planned Area Development (PAD) in Elgin. Among other information, he presented a petition signed by 67 Sonoita and Elgin residents opposing the changes in the Los Milics PAD allowing nine cabins to be built and expanding an existing restaurant/tasting room. The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 7 -1, with one member abstaining to approve the changes. The nay vote and the abstaining vote were both by the commissioners representing eastern Santa Cruz County. The Board of Supervisors followed, voting unanimously to approve the changes.

Increases in water usage that come with higher density is a concern for Schock. He cited a study completed in 1996 and sponsored by the Audubon Society’s Research Ranch in Elgin and conducted by Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science. It suggested that the current GR zoning, allowing one house per 4.17 acres, already overtaxes the water recharge capacity in the Sonoita-Elgin area (the research showed that one house per 25 acres would be more appropriate). Schock recommends that “the County require any project proposing to build lodging or a restaurant to estimate water usage and analyze impacts on ground water recharge capacity.” 

Schock said he wasn’t listened to last year and knows that neither he nor other residents of Sonoita and Elgin will be listened to this time. “The County does not want our input, they have already decided they want more development to add revenues to the county coffers.” Schock had heard nothing about the Market Study, Winery Master Plan and Land Use Overlay District before the RFP was approved by the Board of Supervisors early this month but was very clear that if the result of the process is an Overlay District allowing more development in the General Rural Zone, he is solidly against it.