Settlement calls for full study of disputed Sonoma Mountain winery project

A San Francisco couple will have to pay for a more extensive review to advance their Sonoma Mountain Road project.|

A San Francisco couple who want to build a winery and creamery on Sonoma Mountain Road overlooking Bennett Valley will have to undergo a significantly more extensive planning and environmental review process under terms reached in a settlement deal between the county and neighbors who opposed the project.

The deal stems from a lawsuit filed by a group of neighbors after the Board of Supervisors last October approved plans by Nate and Lauren Belden to construct a 10,000-case-a-year winery and cheese production shop.

In the settlement completed last week, county officials agreed to conduct a full environmental review, a time-consuming and expensive step for the Beldens. At least one supervisor says that review was warranted all along.

“I saw obvious flaws in the technical analyses of traffic and water impacts,” said board Chairwoman Susan Gorin, who represents the area and was the sole vote against the Belden Barns Winery last year. “I’m very concerned about the number of events approved and unlimited tasting room hours - it’s a very hazardous road, especially mixed with alcohol.”

Under terms spelled out in the settlement deal, the county is scrapping a determination concluding that all impacts from the winery and creamery on nearby Bennett Valley neighbors, including traffic, noise and water resources, were properly studied. For the project to go forward, the Beldens must pay for the county to produce a full environmental impact report, according to County Counsel Bruce Goldstein.

That step alone has created another formidable hurdle for the Beldens, who appeared visibly frustrated with the opposition to their project at a hearing last year. At the time, they said further challenges to their plans could kill the project.

The couple did not return calls and emails seeking comment about the settlement.

The deal marks the second time this year that neighborhood opposition has prompted a costlier and more extensive review of a winery plan in the county.

The first involved a controversial proposal by Joe Wagner, a member of the Caymus Vineyards winemaking family from Napa County, who wants to build a large-scale winery and distillery on Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. That project will also now undergo a full environmental review.

The challenge to Belden Barns, especially, reflects a shift in the scrutiny facing the local wine industry. Where once such disputes were centered in the county’s largest grape growing regions, including the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander valleys, more and more they are countywide, taking in smaller and more remote grape growing regions.

The tug-of-war shows that a broader discussion is needed in the county over how to guide winery development, Gorin suggested.

“We as a county need to decide what’s appropriate,” Gorin said. “We’re seeing more and more proposals where our roads are very narrow and in poor condition, and sight lines are difficult, yet we’re in the position of approving wineries and tasting rooms that could endanger visitors and other people.”

The Board of Zoning Adjustments, which is in charge of approving or denying winery applications when they are first proposed, signed off in March last year on the Belden Barns Winery, situated on the 55-acre farm property. The zoning board also approved 10 annual events at the winery and wine tasting by appointment seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Shortly after that decision, a group of neighbors who live on Sonoma Mountain Road filed an appeal, sending the matter to the Board of Supervisors. During a marathon public hearing in October, supervisors heard concerns from neighbors, bicyclists and motorists. Citing a county goal of promoting diverse agriculture, supervisors turned down the neighbors’ appeal 4-1.

The group criticizing the project, called Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, contend that the roadway is too curvy and narrow for the tourism and truck traffic the winery would bring. They’ve long called for a more extensive review to assess the project’s impacts, including on natural resources and the neighborhood’s rural character.

The neighbors group, including Don and Donna Parker, Amy Rodney and Byron LaGoy, is now “hopeful that a more complete an accurate analysis of the impacts of this project on the environment will occur,” according to Rose Zoia, the group’s attorney.

The Belden Barns proposal was among a number of applications for new and expanded wineries in the past year that fired a vocal public backlash over winery development in the county.

Some view that development and increased tourism as a crucial part of the local economy, helping to stabilize government coffers and support a wide range of area businesses. Others say vintners are hosting over-the-top parties that infringe on rural neighborhoods and create unsafe driving conditions, increase noise and strain valuable water supplies.

The county has struggled in the past year to find a suitable way to channel that debate.

High-profile vintners offered their take for the first time publicly this month, as they sought to highlight local efforts to sustainably harvest crops and preserve water. Executives from Jackson Family Wines, Balletto Vineyards and Winery and others also said winery events and tasting represented an essential part of their business model.

The issue is expected to heat up later this year when the Board of Supervisors takes up two high-profile appeals on winery projects - the expansion of Hop Kiln Winery on Westside Road and Ken and Diane Wilson’s new Hale Winery on Dry Creek Road.

Next spring, supervisors are also expected to weigh in on policy recommendations that could lead to tighter limits on winery development and events in the county.

County officials said they expect to hold a public hearing for the Belden Barns Winery environmental review in June 2016.

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

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