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Special Coverage: Voices Of Sonoma Highway

Development along Sonoma County’s busiest wine road has sparked a debate over the future of the Sonoma Valley, one that mirrors a larger discussion underway throughout the county about wine and tourism.
"I drive down the highway and some of the recent projects that have been built don’t look like the Sonoma Valley that I’m used to. They’re not in keeping with our heritage."
While business is good and steadily improving, with some 300 patrons stopping at Palooza during summer season, the owner sees a delicate balance required between drawing traffic and maintaining safety.
One Kenwood couple is concerned about highway congestion caused by ever-expanding senior developments on the south side of Highway 12 as well as winery and events projects on the north side.
“If you’re not moving forward, you are moving backwards, from the fact that the rest of the world is moving forward without you,” William Foss said in regards to the busy Sonoma Valley community.
An unexpected 5,000 people descended on last year’s Lavender Harvest Festival, prompting an early closure and vow that it would be the last.
The small Sonoma Valley town has evolved from a quaint community to a town of rentals and tourist attractions, one business owner said.
"People can complain about vineyards and tasting rooms. But if we didn’t have them, it all would be paved over into homes."
"There are people with wine glasses wandering around the highway from buses, limos and vans. ... It has gotten out of hand. Highway 12 was never designed to cover as much traffic as it sees now."
The former Kenwood B&B now hosts groups, with with events ranging from family reunions, birthdays, weddings and corporate retreats.
The winery is seeking county permission to build a new 4,100-square-foot tasting room, a move they project will increase visitor attendance up to 10,000 annually.
From the town’s demographics to the increased traffic, Kenwood Assistant Fire Chief Darren Bellach shares the evolution he’s witnessed over the years.
St. Francis Winery’s CEO recalls “the main drag” of his youth, and how the 17-mile roadway from Sonoma to Santa Rosa is still a spectacular drive.
Residents point to the lack of available and affordable housing in the town as a contributing factor to the dwindling community.
While a few neighbors are concerned about the impact the 50-room hotel and spa will bring to the Highway 12 area, others believe it will be good for the valley.