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Neighbors object to proposed winery plan, fearing habitat damage, greater risk of landslides

  • Betty and Jim Doerksen are protesting a plan to construct an 18,000 square foot winery and caves, which they believe will decrease the flow of water of Mark West Creek and diminish habitat quality through their property along St. Helena Road.

Inside Jim and Betty Doerksen's century-old farmhouse on St. Helena Road, stacks of paper and aerial photos are spread across a dining room table, beneath an antique rifle mounted on the wall.

The setting reflects the couple's battle with a Wall Street executive who wants to build an 18,000-square-foot winery and 8,000-square-foot storage cave in the hills above their home.

The Doerksens, and many of their neighbors who live in the forested enclave northeast of Santa Rosa, fear the winery and the vines will further deplete water levels in Mark West Creek, increase the risk of landslides and bring unwanted traffic to the area.

To underscore his concern, Jim Doerksen, 69, posted a sign on a tree so that all who drive the curvy two-lane road are aware of the controversy: "Vineyards Suck!!! Water," it reads.

The fight, which includes a key hearing today before Sonoma County planners on whether to grant the winery's use permit, is the latest involving well-heeled vintners who seek Sonoma County cache and neighbors who fear grapes are wrecking their way of life.

The winery plan submitted by Henry Cornell, a managing director for the global investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs, is the second brought by a wealthy vintner in the area.

The other is from Jess Jackson, the billionaire owner of the Kendall-Jackson wine empire, who hopes to place an artisan winery and tasting room on Highway 128 near Franz Valley Road.

That plan also has drawn neighborhood protest, primarily over Jackson's desire to operate a tasting room at the site.

These protests more broadly signal growing concern over the effect wineries and vineyards have on the quality of life in rural environs. But because vineyards are exempt from environmental review, the focus of these battles has been on the construction of wineries -- and on those who submit the plans.

"It's all they (opponents) have," said David Hardy, supervising planner of the county's Permit and Resource Management Department. "It's the only thing they get a public notice for."

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