Residents battling long-stalled plans for a winery and artisanal cheese-making operation at a Sonoma Mountain vineyard and farm have reached a settlement with the property owners that will permit the project to finally move ahead after two lawsuits.
The three-way agreement between Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, the County of Sonoma and Belden Barns frees vineyard owners Nate and Lauren Belden to pursue construction of a small winery and a creamery that would yield up to 10,000 pounds of cheese a year.
Opponents of the project agreed to drop their lawsuit after the Beldens agreed to cut back on wine tasting operations, which will be conducted by appointment only; to curtail the number and duration of special events; and to tighten up wastewater monitoring and reporting requirements.
“We feel good,” Nate Belden, 47, said Friday. “It sort of fits in line with the operation we want to have. We just wish we would have gotten to this earlier.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Rose Zoia, said her clients were dealing with a political reality reflected in broad support for the project on the county Board of Supervisors that suggested its eventual approval was inevitable, even if a court determined additional environmental review was required first.
“Nobody’s happy about it,” said plaintiff Amy Rodney, a spokeswoman for what she says is a group of about 150 neighbors who hoped to prevent the project from going forward.
But under the compromise, “I would say that we feel like we got more than we would have gotten from the board, than we’ve ever gotten from the Board of Supervisors,” Rodney said.
The Board of Supervisors has twice voted in favor of the proposal — once, when neighbors appealed a decision of the county planning commission approving it, and again last fall, after an initial lawsuit forced the Beldens to invest in additional environmental review.
First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the lone dissenter on each occasion, conceded Friday that the settlement finalized two days earlier does little to address her overarching concerns about the proliferation of wineries and event centers on narrow, often crumbling mountain roads.
But she said concessions that restrict the number of visitors to the property compared with what initially was proposed and new hours that get them off the mountain before dark are positive outcomes.
“In the end, they (the Beldens) will be allowed to and permitted to develop a winery and a cheese- making operation,” Gorin said.
“And it’s a wonderful proposal,” she added. “I’ve always been very supportive of what they’ve been attempting to do. I’ve just had some concerns about the location and the fact that we had insufficient environmental analysis on traffic impacts, and water, in particular.”
The 55-acre property at issue is on the northwest side of Sonoma Mountain, off Sonoma Mountain Road, about a mile east of Pressley Road, where part of the land was planted in grapes decades ago.
The Beldens acquired the site in 2005, fulfilling a plan to restyle their lives, and for a long time divided their time between San Francisco and a one- bedroom cottage on the property, where they reside with two small children. Their wines are made off-site, but they grow vines, fruit trees and row crops on the property in partnership with another family who also would be processing cheese, Nate Belden said. They plan to have a milking barn, as well, and to keep two cows and five sheep for cheese.