Settlement reached in Belden Barns winery project on Sonoma Mountain
Residents battling long-stalled plans for a winery and artisanal cheese-making operation at a Sonoma Mountain vineyard and farm have reached a settlement with the property owners that will permit the project to finally move ahead after two lawsuits.
The three-way agreement between Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, the County of Sonoma and Belden Barns frees vineyard owners Nate and Lauren Belden to pursue construction of a small winery and a creamery that would yield up to 10,000 pounds of cheese a year.
Opponents of the project agreed to drop their lawsuit after the Beldens agreed to cut back on wine tasting operations, which will be conducted by appointment only; to curtail the number and duration of special events; and to tighten up wastewater monitoring and reporting requirements.
“We feel good,” Nate Belden, 47, said Friday. “It sort of fits in line with the operation we want to have. We just wish we would have gotten to this earlier.”
The attorney for the plaintiffs, Rose Zoia, said her clients were dealing with a political reality reflected in broad support for the project on the county Board of Supervisors that suggested its eventual approval was inevitable, even if a court determined additional environmental review was required first.
“Nobody’s happy about it,” said plaintiff Amy Rodney, a spokeswoman for what she says is a group of about 150 neighbors who hoped to prevent the project from going forward.
But under the compromise, “I would say that we feel like we got more than we would have gotten from the board, than we’ve ever gotten from the Board of Supervisors,” Rodney said.
The Board of Supervisors has twice voted in favor of the proposal - once, when neighbors appealed a decision of the county planning commission approving it, and again last fall, after an initial lawsuit forced the Beldens to invest in additional environmental review.
First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the lone dissenter on each occasion, conceded Friday that the settlement finalized two days earlier does little to address her overarching concerns about the proliferation of wineries and event centers on narrow, often crumbling mountain roads.
But she said concessions that restrict the number of visitors to the property compared with what initially was proposed and new hours that get them off the mountain before dark are positive outcomes.
“In the end, they (the Beldens) will be allowed to and permitted to develop a winery and a cheese-?making operation,” Gorin said.
“And it’s a wonderful proposal,” she added. “I’ve always been very supportive of what they’ve been attempting to do. I’ve just had some concerns about the location and the fact that we had insufficient environmental analysis on traffic impacts, and water, in particular.”
The 55-acre property at issue is on the northwest side of Sonoma Mountain, off Sonoma Mountain Road, about a mile east of Pressley Road, where part of the land was planted in grapes decades ago.
The Beldens acquired the site in 2005, fulfilling a plan to restyle their lives, and for a long time divided their time between San Francisco and a one-?bedroom cottage on the property, where they reside with two small children. Their wines are made off-site, but they grow vines, fruit trees and row crops on the property in partnership with another family who also would be processing cheese, Nate Belden said. They plan to have a milking barn, as well, and to keep two cows and five sheep for cheese.
The goal was a small-scale, diversified operation, and he said he and his wife were perhaps naive to the sensitivity of neighbors. They’re glad to have the lawsuit behind them, even if it means downscaling the wine tasting a bit.
The compromise, reached through a judicial settlement process supervised by Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau, resulted in more detailed wastewater disposal plans that include additional reporting and quarterly monitoring for the first five years to ease neighbors’ concerns about potential well contamination.
Wine tasting, long agreed to be conducted by appointment only, will run only on Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., January through March, and five days a week, rather than seven, the other months. Tastings will end each day at 4 p.m., with an extension to 5 p.m. during daylight saving time.
Appointments will need to be made at least 90 minutes in advance, and the Beldens will be required to log appointments and certify to neighbors that there are no violations.
The Beldens can hold eight special events a year, the largest limited to ?200 people, and six of those events need to finish by ?5 p.m., with considerations intended to limit noise. They also have agreed to signs preventing visitors from accessing the site from the east side of Sonoma Mountain Road because it is in such poor condition.
Weddings will be limited to one a year and only for family or close friends.
“We’re actually trying to do something different and additive, sort of a new model,” Nate Belden said. “But we’ve learned that in Sonoma, anything with the whiff of wine these days is going to get some professionalized opposition.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
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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