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One of Sonoma County’s most esteemed vintners has cleared a key hurdle on his way toward building a long-sought winery on Westside Road, but he’s bracing for continued opposition from residents who say his plans would place too great a strain on the rural corridor outside Healdsburg, already one of the most popular grape-growing and wine-tasting regions in the county.

David Ramey, winemaker and co-owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, received the blessing this week from a majority of planning officials who considered his proposal for a 60,000-case winery and tasting room operation that has been in the works since he and his wife, Carla, bought the 75-acre site of the former Westside Farms nearly five years ago.

While Ramey’s project passed the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments on a 3-to-1 vote Thursday, it could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors by any one of the residents who oppose the project, citing concerns about its scale and impact, including traffic from events and visitors to the public tasting room. Ramey is expecting an appeal, meaning supervisors could have the final say on the matter, barring a court battle.

“Hopefully, it won’t be (though),” Ramey said in an interview. “We think the project stands on its own merits.”

A well-known figure widely respected in the North Coast wine industry and beyond, Ramey has attracted numerous influential supporters, among them several other high-profile winemakers and neighbors of the vineyard where he wants to build the new winery.

His project, nevertheless, has been ensnared in much wider, countywide debate over the proliferation of wineries and tasting rooms, along with the events that often accompany them, fueling tension with residents who say some areas have reached a tipping point.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to resume its deliberation over policies to govern some of the disputed expansion, including potential limits on wineries that often double as event centers. Ramey’s project, if appealed, could be another test case of how the board intends to regulate the county’s signature industry, particularly in the premier wine-growing areas of Westside Road, Dry Creek Valley and the Sonoma Valley.

Already, 29 permitted wineries or tasting rooms exist in the Westside Road area, according to county planning officials, and four are located within a half-mile of Ramey’s vineyard. The zoning board earlier this year rejected two other Westside Road proposals, one a winery and the other a tasting room, prompting appeals by proponents to the Board of Supervisors.

Another small winery with public tasting and 18 annual events also has been proposed near Ramey’s site, according to county planning staff.

“There are already too many wineries and tasting rooms in this particular area, in my view,” said Greg Carr, the lone zoning board member to vote against Ramey’s plan at Thursday’s meeting. “I don’t know whether … anybody will agree with me on whether this is overconcentrated. I think it is, and I think it’s very similar to some areas of west Dry Creek and some areas of Sonoma Valley.”

Ramey has been living and making wine on the North Coast for nearly 40 years, he said. He helped establish Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill wineries. In 1996, he and his wife started Ramey Wine Cellars and have grown it from a small, 260-case operation into a 40,000-case business with wine sold across the country and abroad.

The Rameys’ winery currently operates out of leased buildings in Healdsburg, but the couple wants to transition into property they actually own and where they already grow wine grapes.

“I hope you can see that this has evolved into too substantial of a business to not control our own winery, to not have our own winery to pass onto our kids and then hopefully their kids,” Ramey told the zoning board. “One thing I want to emphasize is that we’re proposing a real winery: 60,000 cases is classified by the county as a mid-size winery. This is not an event center.”

Ramey’s property at 7097 Westside Road — the site for many years of a popular pumpkin patch — has 32 acres of chardonnay grapes and 10 acres of pinot noir.

Ramey wants to build a 32,210-square-foot winery building and a 20,720-square-foot wine cave on the west side of the site. On the property’s east side, he has proposed converting an old hop kiln building into a public tasting room and transforming an old hop barn into a reserve tasting room with marketing space for two guests on the upper floor.

Under the conditions approved by the zoning board, Ramey would be allowed to host 20 events, including participation in two industrywide events that would have a maximum of 300 guests.

Most of the more than 30 people who spoke at Thursday’s hearing supported the project, and many had glowing things to say about Ramey. The turnout by industry insiders appeared to represent a higher level of engagement and public testimony over past years at the planning level, reflecting perhaps the stakes many see in current decisions on winery expansion.

“David is one of Sonoma County’s original, pioneering, iconic winemakers,” said Kim Stare Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard, calling Ramey a “trailblazer” whose “impeccable” reputation “helped put our county on the map.”

“It is ludicrous, not to mention tragic, that Dave’s intention to continue the history of farming on this site is even being questioned,” Stare Wallace said.

John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and a board member of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said the winery proposed by Ramey was in keeping with the county’s right-to-farm ordinance.

“The project applicant is a multi-generation Sonoma County grower and also a very well-known winemaker who is recognized around the world for making outstanding wines from Sonoma County vineyards,” Balletto said. “We are so blessed … to have Dave and his family want to continue to grow their winery.”

But Judith Olney, a longtime Westside Road resident who has opposed multiple previous winery projects, urged the zoning board not to confuse its land-use decision with a “Mr. Healdsburg competition.”

“The winemaking prowess of the applicant or the integrity of this family-run operation is totally immaterial to the decisions that the planning commission needs to make today,” Olney said. “Use-permit entitlements can be sold with the land or the brand.”

Marc Bommersbach, who is married to Olney, told the zoning board he was worried about traffic safety, particularly given the route’s popularity with bicyclists.

“This would be one of the highest, if not the highest, concentrations of tasting rooms or large wineries on any rural road” in the county, he said.

A majority of the zoning board members at Thursday’s meeting looked favorably upon the merits of Ramey’s proposal.

“This is exactly the kind of project that I like to see more of,” said board member Cameron Mauritson, a grape grower whose family’s winery and tasting room is off Dry Creek Road. “I don’t see a lot of negatives … I’m not sure that we’re here to discuss the concentration piece. I think we need to task the supervisors with that. So I’m pretty comfortable with what we have here.”

Bommersbach said Friday that residents opposed to the project had yet to decide whether they will appeal the decision.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents most of the north county area, said he’ll be looking at whether each project appealed to the board is complementary to agriculture.

“That area on Westside Road, just like a lot of areas, is zoned primarily land-intensive agriculture, and there’s only so much prime ag land in the county,” Gore said. “The impact on agriculture, and if they’re requiring high levels of events — that’s different than something which is really processing Sonoma County fruit. It’s not just an issue of wineries and winery events and things like that. It’s about, is this an ag-supporting system?”

Supervisors are tentatively scheduled to resume their policy debate about winery events in early December. They have not yet set dates to hear the two Westside Road proposals. Opponents have until early October to appeal the vote on Ramey’s plan.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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