Sonoma County supervisors OK controversial Belden Barns Winery on Sonoma Mountain Road
Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday approved a controversial proposal to develop a winery and creamery on Sonoma Mountain Road, a decision that could draw to an end a two-year battle between Bennett Valley neighbors opposed to the project and the family seeking to launch its new farmstead.
With Tuesday’s 4-1 vote approving the project, Nate and Lauren Belden will be able to build their long-envisioned Belden Barns Winery, producing up to 10,000 cases of wine per year and 10,000 pounds of cheese. And while vineyards line Sonoma Mountain Road, the Beldens’ project would be the first winery on the stretch between Pressley Road to the west and Jack London State Historic Park on the east.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the project, was the sole dissenting vote.
During a heated and sometimes emotional exchange between Gorin and other board members, the two-term supervisor pressed her colleagues to address concerns she shared with a large group of neighbors opposed to the project, including increased traffic on a narrow, winding mountain road and potential threats to public safety, sensitive wildlife habitat and water resources.
“This is truly an amazing project, in the wrong location. The road is very very dangerous, especially at night,” Gorin said at the end of a nearly five-hour public hearing, adding that she is “stunned” the project will move forward despite hazardous road conditions.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Gorin added, before telling her board colleagues that she’d continue pressing for road safety measures, including new signage and turnouts. She raised the possibility of demanding the board approve millions in new funding to reconstruct the entire length of Sonoma Mountain Road.
“I wish you luck having that argument with a future board,” responded Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, alluding to sometimes-fiery discussions surrounding high-profile spending decisions on road repairs and county infrastructure projects.
“To me, this is the kind of project we should be celebrating in Sonoma County,” Carrillo said.
Although Carrillo’s term on the board ends in December, Tuesday’s back-and-forth over the Belden project highlighted the tone - and hinted at a possibly direction - for a closely watched debate about the proliferation of wineries and event centers the board is set to resume early next year.
That decision, set to take place sometime during the spring, could lead to tighter regulations on new wineries and limits on events seen as critical for wineries to profit from their agricultural product.
Nate Belden celebrated the board’s decision Tuesday night, which comes after two years of expensive bureaucratic and legal battles, including a lawsuit and, most recently, a lengthy environmental impact report.
Supervisors who voted to approve the project argued that the environmental review, and the mitigation measures it requires, adequately address neighborhood concerns.
“I feel exhausted,” Belden said after the hearing. “It’s been a long, emotional, stressful process. But we hope to be an example of where Sonoma County is going with diversified agriculture.”
The Beldens plan to work with current farmers and help those seeking to start an agricultural business. In addition to making wine and cheese, the Beldens are working with other farmers to grow fruits and vegetables on their 55-acre property.
Their project allows for eight events per year, with the number of guests ranging from 60 to 200, and development of a new tasting room.
More than a dozen people spoke against the project, citing concern about the validity of the environmental review, as well as the county’s ability to enforce its rules governing winery events. The county does not staff code enforcement officers on nights and weekends, when most winery events - including those that are unauthorized - are held.
“Our opposition to this project is not aimed at the Beldens or their dream to farm the land,” said Amy Rodney, a spokeswoman for the neighborhood group Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, which challenged the development in court last year but later settled with the county.
“The (environmental review) is inadequate. It ignores the wildlife corridor on the Beldens’ property, it does not deal adequately with traffic and safety issues or water supply and quality issues,” she said.
Rodney said she was “disappointed” by the board’s decision. Neighbors will determine in the next 30 days whether to file a lawsuit challenging the environmental review of the project, she said.
One Sonoma Mountain Road resident, however, vowed a fight.
“The resistance to this will not go away if this whole project is allowed to continue,” Dan Viele said.
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ahartreports.