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Noise, traffic at issue in dispute over Guy Fieri’s proposed winery

UPDATE (10:30 a.m. Thursday):

Thursday's hearing for Guy Fieri’s Hunt-Ryd Winery application has been canceled due to heavy rains and flooding, Sonoma County planning officials announced.

The meeting of the Board of Zoning Adjustments will be continued until January, officials said.

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Guy Fieri, the celebrity chef known for his spiky blond hair and oversized personality on TV, is seeking to add an upscale Italian-style winery west of Santa Rosa to his growing fleet of businesses, including a pair of Sonoma County restaurants. But his proposal has been stalled since May, when a band of neighbors pushed county planning officials to further study the traffic and noise the winery could invite into the rural area.

Now, residents on Willowside Road, a narrow two-lane byway that stretches between Piner and Guerneville roads, once again are asking the Board of Zoning Adjustments to deny Fieri’s proposal. A crowd is expected to protest the Food Network star’s plans at a public hearing set for this afternoon.

Tina Wallis, a Santa Rosa attorney representing Fieri, said the chef has held multiple meetings with area residents in an attempt to address their concerns. Current plans call for a “small, boutique winery” on the 7-acre Willowside property, Wallis said. The operation would have an annual production of 10,000 cases, 14 events per year, wine tasting by appointment on weekdays and public tasting on weekends.

“We want to emphasize that we’ve taken the neighbors’ concerns into consideration,” Wallis said. Fieri, who also owns the Santa Rosa restaurants Tex Wasabi’s and Johnny Garlic’s, was not available for comment Wednesday.

At present, his property has a two-story residence and a building that would be converted for wine production, plus a small vineyard. Some of the vines would be removed to make room for two new buildings - a 1,500-square-foot tasting room and a 3,000-square-foot barrel storage room. Fieri also has proposed an outdoor plaza he’s calling a piazza, modeled after city squares in Italy.

More than 100 neighbors have signed a petition opposing Fieri’s proposal, named Hunt-Ryd Winery after his two sons, Hunter and Ryder. Dozens of powder-blue signs erected by winery opponents along Willowside Road read “Shhhhhhh! Keep Willowside Safe & Quiet: No to Guy Fieri.”

Diana Monk, 88, who lives next door to the proposed winery, fears it will impair the horse boarding and training operation she runs on her property.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to close my business because of the noise,” Monk said “This is my income, and I won’t be able to put a child on a horse during the crush or during events. A horse will spook.”

The conflict over Fieri’s project has surfaced as one of the sharpest disputes in an ongoing countywide debate about the proliferation of wineries and tasting rooms, especially those that double as event centers. Neighbors have filed hundreds of complaints with the county about unpermitted events at wineries. Some of those cases led to the recent unprecedented action against Bella Vineyards, where county officials halted events altogether. The winery’s owners are challenging that decision.

For the wine industry, the crackdown against Bella, a popular destination overlooking Dry Creek Valley, highlighted widespread confusion about how the county defines and regulates events. Vintners say such gatherings, which can range from weddings to special dinners and industrywide promotions, are a key way to market their products directly to consumers.

Fieri’s bid to join the ranks of local winemakers has added another level of scrutiny by opponents, who are pairing their take on Fieri’s high-octane reputation with concerns about his winery project.

“This is an invitation for celebrity tourism in our residential community,” said Joan Fleck, who also lives next door to Fieri’s property.

Neighbors say they’re concerned the project could result in an influx of traffic to their neighborhood, and that its proximity to the nearby Olivet Elementary School poses a safety hazard to pedestrians and motorists. Neighbors also contend the noise and traffic impacts have not been properly analyzed by county staff.

“We feel the county has woefully underestimated the amount of traffic and noise that this project will create,” Fleck said.

County planning officials say the project would not result in significant negative impacts related to traffic congestion, safety or noise.

Fieri has made changes to his proposal since he first sought approval from the county in 2012, according to attorney Wallis. She said the concessions include eliminating signs in front of his building, limiting events to invitation-only, and scaling back wine tasting to appointment- only during the week.

Sigrid Swedenborg, the county planner overseeing the project, is recommending that the zoning board approve Fieri’s request, but has suggested limiting the number of events to 10 annually, eliminating four large-scale events proposed by Fieri.

Any approval could come with dozens of additional conditions. Swedenborg recommended 76 measures, including a requirement to report annually the amount of groundwater extracted from wells, disclosing where wells are located and building two 6-foot fences to buffer nearby property owners from noise impacts.

Wallis said winery guests for the four large events would arrive in shuttles. She said Fieri already has compromised by agreeing not to participate in industrywide events such as the upcoming Winter Wineland or the county’s popular barrel tasting festival in the spring.

“We’ve substantially downsized the project,” she said.

Opponents argue that the proposal conflicts with the county’s general plan and doesn’t fit in the rural setting. But Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Barrett said the zoning board has discretion to interpret the county’s general plan policies and determine whether the project complies.

“It’s not uncommon for people to argue that a project is not consistent with the general plan,” Barrett said. “But there are different ways to interpret our policies, and there are so many of them that we can’t always be consistent with every single one. In the end, it’s a determination the board will have to make.”

Fieri’s proposal could present a test case for incoming 4th District Supervisor James Gore, who represents the area. A decision at today’s 1 p.m. hearing would bypass his planning commissioner, Willie Lamberson, who has not yet been seated on the Board of Zoning Adjustments. An appeal would send the project to the Board of Supervisors.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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