Ex-Cloverleaf Ranch site proposal sparks debate over rural buffer zones
Plans to revive and revamp shuttered lodging and event grounds off Old Redwood Highway are being met with resistance from Sonoma County environmentalists who say the project will encroach on rural lands voters eight months ago overwhelmingly agreed to protect from large-scale development.
The project would transform more than 20 acres just north of Santa Rosa into a new business called Solstice Sonoma, envisioned by San Francisco architect Kevin Skiles and his partners as a modern yet rural getaway for weddings and retreats, and for others seeking an escape barely removed from city services and Highway 101.
Originally developed as part of the Cloverleaf Ranch camp and horseback riding school next door, the site is located within one of the buffer zones between cities that received an additional 20 years of protection through the passage of Measure K last year.
Known technically as community separators, the buffer zones remain subject to longstanding county rules requiring voter approval of large new projects such as major housing tracts, shopping malls or other commercial developments.
Proponents contend the Solstice plans are in keeping with county land-use rules, including Measure K. Construction would be hidden behind a hill covered in grapevines, rendering the new development invisible to passing motorists, and the site was used for decades as a camp and event facility.
But critics say the proposed construction goes far beyond what land-use rules allow in rural buffer zones and what voters agreed to in November. They see the project as a key test of the strength of Measure K, which passed with more than 81 percent of the vote.
“This project definitely pushes the envelope,” said Teri Shore, regional director for the North Bay office of Greenbelt Alliance, which spearheaded the ballot measure. “This is one of the last visible green buffers between Santa Rosa and Windsor.”
Parts of the project were evaluated Wednesday by Sonoma County's Design Review Committee, which still needs to hold at least one more meeting to consider the proposed design in more detail. That committee does not have any land-use authority - ultimately, the county's Board of Zoning Adjustments will need to approve or deny the project, a step at least a few months away. The zoning board's decision can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
For Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the proposed Solstice site, the project's ability to move forward as planned should depend on whether it fits within the land uses already allowed on the property.
“If it conforms to the current rights on that land, then those are property rights,” Gore said. “If the application is trying to reach beyond those rights on that land, then I am absolutely concerned. And we'll have to see how the planning process goes.”
Over the course of two building phases envisioned for the site, the Solstice backers would develop 25 one-bedroom cabins, all but one of which would replace 17 existing buildings, according to Skiles.
Additionally, plans call for a 7,000-square-foot event barn, a 2,500-square-foot office building, parking for 160 cars and 8 acres of grapevines. Crews would also renovate two existing three-bedroom homes, with the larger one intended to be a vacation rental and the smaller home used to house a full-time employee.
By the end of the second phase, Skiles and his partners hope to host a maximum of 50 annual weddings - including 20 with up to 300 guests and 30 weddings with up to 200 guests - as well as 50 special dining events for up to 80 people.
Skiles, who lives in Marin County and has built homes in Sonoma County before, said his team designed Solstice “fully within” the appropriate county land-use guidelines. He rejected criticism that the project was inappropriate for a rural buffer zone, stressing the planned development's seclusion behind the hill where the 8-acre vineyard is planned.
“When people think of community separators, it's the visual impact of development is what they're talking about,” Skiles said. “They want to be able to drive on Old Redwood Highway and have a clear distinction where the city limits are and where the county and the more rural landscape begins. This project was designed in a way that not only preserves the rural landscape, but totally enhances the visual impact of that front slope.”
The hill faces west to Old Redwood Highway and Highway 101, and would evolve from a “weed field” into an agricultural landscape with grapevines and picturesque trees, Skiles said.
Scale an issue
Yet critics of the Solstice project have focused more on the size and impact of the proposed development, regardless of its visibility to major routes. Shore has argued the scale of the project exceeds the site's zoning requirements so much the property should be rezoned for commercial use, which would trigger a countywide vote.
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