Large riverfront resort near Guerneville approved over neighbors’ opposition

The permit comes with a long list of conditions — many of them standard and many intended to address neighbors’ concerns about traffic, scale, emergency evacuations and other impacts.|

Members of the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments have granted a use permit and other approvals for a large new riverfront resort just outside of Guerneville.

The board’s unanimous vote in support of the project Thursday came despite significant neighborhood opposition.

The 108-room Lodge on Russian River still will require design review and wildlife surveys to determine whether there are vulnerable species on the site before construction can go forward.

The permit comes with a long list of conditions — many of them standard and many intended to address neighbors’ concerns about traffic, scale, emergency evacuations and other impacts.

A provision added Thursday requires evacuation planning for the resort to mandate closure of the property before a county-assigned evacuation zone is even at “warning” stage to ensure resort guests leave before surrounding residents and don’t impede their departures.

Approval by the appointed four-member commission was a major step in eventual development of the beachfront site — once the location of the historic Guernewood Park Hotel built in the 1930s. It came only after developers made concessions required by the board during a hearing last October.

“I hope it’s evident to everyone who’s in attendance that we’ve seriously tried to hear the community and work through this, I think, inevitable and long-term eventual development of this property — or redevelopment of this property — as a tourist-related commercial enterprise,” said Eric Koenigshofer, the west county representative to the board.

The 9.6-acre site is on Highway 116 about four-fifths of a mile west of Guerneville. It is now an empty field framed by clumps of redwoods farther from the road, crisscrossed by foot paths to the river beach.

It’s designated in the county’s General Plan for recreation and visitor services — the kinds of activities envisioned in the resort proposal. Plans include two main hotel buildings with 72 guest rooms, four detached “tree houses” among clusters of redwoods with 18 guest rooms and 10 suites, a restaurant, a bar, a pool, two meeting/event rooms, a gym and spa.

Last fall, commissioners required developers to pare down what had been planned as four-story buildings and 120 guest rooms to three stories and 108 rooms.

Even so, the public has been concerned about its size and the numbers of people that could be drawn to the site, though it’s been hard to determine what the maximum might be.

Land-use consultant Jean Kapolchok told commissioners the maximum number of overnight guests would be 260, with 18 staff members on duty at peak hours. The parking management plan will be designed to ensure no more than 145 non-guests would be present in the restaurant/bar or in meeting rooms during peak resort months, June to October. Up to 275 would be allowed during off-peak months.

Given those numbers, if the resort were to sell out off-peak, there could conceivably be around 550 people on the site, though valet parking would be necessary, given the limit of 150 parking spaces.

But industry rule of thumb, Kapolchok said, suggests 80% of those using event space or the restaurant and bar are also overnight guests. She put the maximum occupancy of the resort below 400.

Koenigshofer even at the last minute Thursday asked his colleagues if they would consider requiring it be scaled down more through a reduction in guests rooms or meeting room size, occupancy or number.

He noted that the property, as measured at 9.6 acres, included much of the river and beach — unbuildable space — so that the 3.7-acre project, as proposed, would fill a greater percentage of the site than might be obvious on paper.


But there was no appetite among his peers for further reductions, given compromises already made and public benefits that include a bike path and separate accessible trail between the highway and the beach, a new covered transit stop and 25 public parking spaces that are all part of the project. The project also includes parking for 35 bicycles and a 1 1/4 acres of habitat restoration in the riparian corridor.

In addition, though it meant expanding the overall footprint by about 5,200 square feet during the recent redesign, much of that came through reorienting and internalizing garbage pickup and delivery service areas to minimize noise, developers said.

“I’m satisfied with the architectural changes they’ve made to reduce the scale of the project,” as well as efforts to mitigate negative impacts like noise exposure for the adjacent Dubrava Village condominiums to the west, Commissioner Larry Reed said.

Commissioner Greg Carr also noted that the board had recently handed a recommendation up to county supervisors for new zoning restrictions in the lower river and other county areas that would, Koenigshofer said, cap vacation rentals to 5% of the housing stock, shifting more overnight visitors to hotel-type lodging.

The resort property, out of use since a fire at the old hotel in the 1970s, was purchased by Petaluma hotelier Kirk Lok and his family in 1998. Lok envisioned a resort similar to what’s in store.

But its development has repeatedly been delayed, in part by economic downturns, beginning with the recession that gripped the globe shortly after Lok proposed a resort on the site in 2008.

He eventually connected with Seattle architect Doug Demers, senior managing principal at B+J Advance Strategy and design lead on the project. Demers’ in-laws have, since 1932, owned a vacation house at Odd Fellows Russian River Park east of Guerneville, and he’s been interested in Russian River projects.

Demers brought in partners Gateway Capital and Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which will operate the high-end Lodge, a much larger operation than most other hotels in the area.

The project has faced neighborhood opposition since the start — a fact frequent local government critic Lloyd Guccione pointed out during Thursday’s public hearing, saying finally, “It’s not right.”

“Let’s not set this precedent,” said another critic, Isabella Rendon, of Monte Rio. “We don’t need a Montage Hotel in the lower Russian River. We aren’t Healdsburg, and I hope we can maintain the charm of our small town.”

Several people spoke of worsening traffic through the area in recent years on worn, narrow roads that leave everyone to the same arterial: Highway 116.

Chris Christopher, a resident for 50 years of the Guernewood Park community across the highway from the resort site, said turning into his neighborhood already “is perilous” because of the volume of traffic and poor visibility. Fatal crashes are common just up the road, he said.

“This looks like a nightmare having this facility in place,” said another resident, Mary Anne Sobieraj.

Since the North Bay fires of 2017 and the Kincade Fire two years later, during which much of central and west Sonoma County all the way to the coast were evacuated, land-use debates have increasingly focused on evacuation impacts, particularly when routes out of harm’s way are few.

Former Sheriff Rob Giordano and his former Assistant Sheriff, Clint Shubel, both now evacuation consultants, appeared with the developers Thursday. Giordano said they would be developing the resort evacuation plan and staff training protocols framed by the county’s operational philosophy of getting people out early and from a broad area, based on specific triggers, to ensure civilians were out of the way so firefighters could do their work.

But he said experience indicates resort guests don’t wait around in a crisis, and staff will be trained to help guide them in the right direction to move them on their way, even though 22 of the parking spaces would be “stacked,” meaning one behind the other, requiring coordination in getting folks out.

“We can leverage all those things in the training,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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