County strikes blow against proposed Dairyman winery near Sebastopol

Sonoma County Regional Parks opposed an expansion to the proposed Dairyman winery in Sebastopol, ruling that the vineyard owner has no current legal right to cross the Joe Rodota Trail.|

Delivering a blow to the most controversial winery project in Sonoma County, the county’s top parks official has found that the owner of a vineyard near Sebastopol has no current legal right to access his property by crossing the Joe Rodota Trail.

Parks Director Caryl Hart also determined that any possible changes to the popular bike path to accommodate the proposed Dairyman Winery and Distillery project would not provide any benefit to the trail or the public.

Her decision places Sonoma County Regional Parks in direct opposition to the plan by winemaker Joe Wagner to turn his 68-acre property into a large winery and distillery that would produce up to 500,000 cases of wine annually and hold events with up to 600 guests.

Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, said Hart’s letter has put the brakes on development.

“It’s development 101. No access, no project,” Wick said.

An attorney representing Wagner disputes the county’s legal reasoning, and the 33-year-old winemaker has vowed to press on. “We still believe this is the right project in the right place,” Wagner said in an interview.

In the year since Wagner applied for a use permit, the proposed Dairyman project has become the highest-profile battle over winery development and expansion in Sonoma and Napa counties. The fight pits wineries, which are looking for growth opportunities in an increasingly competitive industry, against community activists and environmentalists who contend such expansion is ruining their quality of life with traffic and congestion.

Wagner, who earlier this year sold his Meiomi brand for $315 million to Constellation Brands Inc., has encountered significant opposition to his proposal from a range of local groups raising concerns about the development’s impact on natural resources, groundwater and roads. The Sebastopol City Council unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution in February urging county officials to deny the application for the project, located along the Highway 12 corridor between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Permission to cross the Joe Rodota Trial, an almost 9-mile pedestrian and bike trail, has emerged as the major sticking point. Even Wagner acknowledges that the dispute must be resolved for his bid to be successful.

Sonoma County acquired the land for the trail in 1988 from Northwestern Pacific Railroad and it has become a very popular path, used by everyone from long-distance bike riders and commuters to children learning how to ride. Roughly 600 to 700 people used it during weekends in August last year, according to a 2014 study conducted by the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

Hart, however, has thrown cold water on any possible compromise that would allow the project to go forward and has challenged Wagner’s right to access his vineyards via a narrow dirt driveway that crosses the trail. A couple of vehicles a day currently drive across the trail to access Wagner’s property, said Kenneth Tam, a county park planner.

“The landowner currently has no legal right to cross the trail and crosses at the County’s sufferance,” Hart wrote to Traci Tesconi, the county’s supervising planner, in a Sept. 17 letter.

In her letter, Hart noted that her department has asked property owners in similar instances to obtain encroachment permits from the county. An engineer working for Wagner had discussions with Hart’s department in 2012 about obtaining an easement and an appraisal was conducted, but that occurred before Wagner filed his “large and crossing-intensive project,” she wrote.

Hart not only addressed Wagner’s current right to cross the trail but she also attacked the Dairyman project itself, noting that the Sonoma County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee found that a grade-level crossing of the trail would be “unsafe and inappropriate.”

She concurred, noting that either cars would be backed up onto the highway during large events or there will be inadequate safety controls on motorists who cross the trail. “The number of crossings for this use would create unacceptable safety hazards and related problems for the trail,” she wrote.

Hart also opposed attempts to build a bridge over the path or a tunnel underneath it, writing that it would “degrade the trail and would create significant public safety issues, aesthetic issues, and public nuisances.” That stance would be a tremendous blow to Wagner, who said in an interview he is exploring ways to construct an underpass that would route bikes and pedestrians beneath a driveway that leads to his property.

“It would not provide any benefit to the trail or the public. While I have not had the opportunity to review any studies or proposals, it also appears that grade separation is not feasible in the space available,” she added. A grade separation would be a structure such as a bridge or tunnel to smooth traffic flow.

Wagner’s first priority must be to enter into a written agreement over current use, Hart contends. If he wants to seek a winery expansion, he “first needs to secure alternative access,” she wrote.

Kevin Block, Wagner’s attorney, disputed Hart’s legal stance. “California grants a property owner access to a right of way,” Block said.

Without access crossing the Rodota Trail, the property would be landlocked, he said.

“If you take the time, you come to see this is not a situation that the law looks favorably on,” Block said.

Block said he is preparing a response to Hart’s letter, but is waiting to review public documents on the 1988 acquisition. Those documents, which have been archived, were requested last month.

But patience by the county is wearing out. Wick said if he does not get a response from Block in “the relatively near future” he will pull the application. Wick did not put a time frame on his ultimatum.

One critic of the project applauded Hart’s stance, noting that letters from county agencies typically do not draw such stark lines. “It’s almost unprecedented,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. Helfrich, who previously was a senior planner for the county, noted that such correspondence is usually “pretty soft and everything is couched in passive language.”

Hart said she consulted on her letter with county attorneys and planning staff and that it was not done in isolation. “I relied on information from multiple sources,” she said.

Even with its recent legal stance, the parks department has allowed Wagner to continue crossing the trail to access his property, such as to pick grapes during this year’s harvest. Hart said she does not want to cut off all access to the property.

“Parks is agreeable to continuing minor incursions on the trail based on existing use,” she said.

Despite such opposition, Wagner said he remained optimistic about his project and believes he can provide a design that will be aesthetically pleasing for users of the trail as well as upgrade the land, where now-dilapidated buildings of the former Medeiros Dairy still stand. “We’re making sure the buildings don’t fall over,” he said of his cleanup of the property.

“We believe we are going to be setting a new benchmark in what wine production facilities should be in Sonoma County, if not the state,” Wagner said.

As for his critics, he said he realizes that there are some that will be unpersuaded. “I know there are going to be people who are going to say ‘no’ - no matter what,” Wagner said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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