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After cutting ties with 3 restaurants, Sheldon to stay as partner in Freestone Hotel renovation

A prominent Sonoma County restaurateur who cut ties with three of his businesses after allegations of sexual harassment will not be required to step away from a fourth.

Lowell Sheldon was accused by at least six women of unwanted touching and inappropriate comments in a string of incidents dating back six years.

He was removed this year from ownership at three Sebastopol restaurants: Fern Bar, Handline and Khom Loi.

The allegations against him were first reported in September by the San Francisco Chronicle.

But Sheldon, who has not been charged with any crimes, will stay on as partner at the Freestone Hotel, seven miles west of Sebastopol, the Chronicle first reported Tuesday.

That 148-year-old building is undergoing renovation, and is expected to reopen in 2023.

In a statement emailed Tuesday to his “community,” Sheldon wrote “I messed up in some very real ways” and that “my mistakes have rippled out and caused pain around the community.”

Referring to training sessions on “appropriate work standards” he has undergone for the past two years, he expressed a desire “to better understand my impact as I move through the world.”

Jeffrey Berlin, one of the partners in the Freestone Hotel project, believes that Sheldon is “genuinely distraught” by the way he’s hurt people, “and trying legitimately to address those things about himself.

“If I didn’t see in him something very sincere and authentic about his response to what happened, I wouldn’t back him,” Berlin told The Press Democrat Wednesday.

“I wouldn’t stay in business with someone I felt was going to be a threat, or a danger to people,” Berlin said.

Sheldon acknowledged that his “relationships at three former restaurants” had “fallen apart, because of the way I was.

“I’ve been in therapy for several years, and will be in therapy for several more years,” he told The Press Democrat Wednesday. “I plan to continue learning, growing.”

Sheldon added that he hopes to “show people that I’ve grown, and I’m ready to be that member of the community, and make them feel good about the business that I’m a part of.”

Leah Engel, a former Sheldon employee who made allegations against him, told the Chronicle she found the decision to include Sheldon in the Freestone Hotel project “dumbfounding.”

Engel did not respond to a text requesting comment on Wednesday. Jesse Hom-Dawson, ex-communications manager at Sheldon’s restaurants whom he once told to “sit on daddy’s lap,” told the Chronicle she intends to fight the Freestone Hotel’s permit and alcohol license applications. She declined a Press Democrat reporter’s emailed request for comment.

Sheldon will not have a hand in day-to-day operations at the Freestone Hotel. “That was the plan from the beginning,” said Berlin, who will be the establishment’s general manager.

The project’s third partner, Noah Churma, will provide financial backing, as will Sheldon — who is also overseeing the design of the Hotel. Sheldon will then help Berlin set up the business, which Berlin will run.

In addition to reopening the hotel, “we would also like to run a wine shop, and potentially a tavern on the grounds,” said Berlin. “I don’t know that we’re looking to run a full-blown restaurant. It’s going to be a lot more casual.”

For now, Berlin is living in the Freestone. If anyone wants to talk to him, “it’s not like they’ll have to track someone down in another city. I’m right here, ready, willing and able to communicate with people.”

Actually, he said, correcting himself mid-thought, “it would be less about communicating, and more about just listening.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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