Ex-Cloverleaf Ranch site proposal sparks debate over rural buffer zones

The project, environmentalists say, will encroach on rural lands voters overwhelmingly agreed to protect from large-scale development. Proponents of the project say they are keeping within county land-use rules.|

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.”

Project details

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.

Ultimately, she worries the project could further endanger the buffer zone between Santa Rosa and Windsor, which has already been altered by development in the past.

“If you allow this property to be developed at this scale, with all the comings and goings of cars and people, it will compromise the community separator,” Shore said. “Greenbelt Alliance is concerned that the proposed project is inconsistent with the zoning and it's inconsistent with Measure K, and the intention of Measure K, and with what the voters are expecting the county to do.”

Padi Selwyn, co-chair of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, said the Solstice project could contribute to an undesirable “Napafication” of Sonoma County.

“What makes us special as a community is having green space between cities, and if we just keep developing every available green space that's there, we're just going to be left in the dust. We're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Selwyn said. “Visitors and tourists will go to the next charming, less crowded, less developed location.”

Skiles said the Solstice project would reduce the amount of overnight visitors on the property by about 60 percent compared to its previous usage. He also said traffic flows should be complementary to normal commuting on Old Redwood Highway, with most of the Solstice visitors coming on weekends - an assertion he expects to be backed up by a traffic study.

And not all who visit the property will stay there. One of the benefits of the site, in Skiles' view, is its proximity to hundreds of hotel rooms and several restaurants where visitors could easily retreat to after an event.

“I understand and completely agree with the blowback on large events in rural parts of Sonoma County and how they disrupt the rural serenity,” he said. “In many ways, I believe what we're proposing is a solution to that. What's kind of incredible about this property is that it has one foot in the rural landscape of Sonoma County, but it also kind of has one foot in the city of Santa Rosa.”

A long history

For decades, the site on which Solstice would be built served as part of the core of Cloverleaf Ranch, which started as a 180-acre property bought by Larry and Grace Armstrong in 1947. The ranch, which also offers a horse boarding program, continues to operate on about 160 acres neighboring the potential Solstice site.

After Grace Armstrong died, her will gifted more than 20 acres to one of the couple's children, also named Larry Armstrong. Now 75, the younger Larry Armstrong has given his full support to Skiles and his partners, to whom he is selling the land.

In a letter to county planning staff, Armstrong noted the property's cabins and other facilities hosted “thousands of youth campers” during its decadeslong run as a camp. Within that time, the property was also used for “joyous events like weddings, family picnics and company gatherings,” he wrote.

Armstrong said in an interview the Solstice project is a “wonderful fit” for his land.

“It's being used in a different way, but basically it's still providing a retreat for families, memories of people to get married in the chapel,” Armstrong said. “There's no extremes that are being used to totally change or disrupt the beauty of the property. It makes me happy, because that's what my mom and dad probably would have wanted.”

Shawna DeGrange, Armstrong's niece, now owns Cloverleaf Ranch, and she had dreams of someday reuniting the full 180 acres. A few years ago, she tried to figure out a way to purchase her uncle's property, but decided against “overextending” herself for the sake of nostalgia.

While some people are “really heartbroken” to see some of the old camp planned for a new development, DeGrange acknowledged her uncle's right to do what he wants with his property and hoped to have a good working relationship with the new business, if the Solstice project goes through.

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

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