Sonoma County supervisors to weigh disputed Knights Valley winery proposal
A 10,000-case winery long planned in Knights Valley faces a crucial and possibly controversial vote this week from Sonoma County supervisors, reviving a yearslong public debate about the role of winemaking in the picturesque area northwest of Calistoga.
Slated for a more than 86-acre site about 1 mile west of Highway 128, the proposed Knights Bridge Winery has been several years in the making already, but it has been met with fierce opposition from an organized group of local residents whose objections previously thwarted two other winery projects.
Those residents, joined by another neighborhood group, appealed planning officials’ 2015 approval of the Knights Bridge project, and the matter is now up for consideration Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
At stake is whether Knights Valley, a pristine grape-?growing region dividing a corner of northern Sonoma County from Napa Valley, will get its second winery, or whether local concerns about the potential strain on precious groundwater supplies and other issues will prevail.
Neighbors say the county has failed to appropriately study the possible impacts of the winery, and they want to see an exhaustive environmental analysis completed before the project moves forward.
Knights Bridge Vineyards co-founder Jim Bailey has sought to assuage neighbors’ concerns, telling them in a letter earlier this summer that the winery he plans won’t be visible from “any public road.”
“I purchased our Knights Valley property for the same reason as most of you, for the quiet, agricultural nature, and this winery does not intend to change that,” Bailey wrote. “I think we all share the same concerns, whether it’s water, traffic, or whatever, and we honestly feel that we have done our best to address them and put the best and most careful plan in place.”
Bailey could not be reached for comment last week. The Knights Bridge brand is currently based in Calistoga.
The site off Spencer Lane includes about 43 acres of vineyards, mostly cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes, according to county planner Georgia McDaniel. The property also includes two residences: a 10-bedroom, 10-bath mansion as well as a smaller residence, McDaniel said.
Bailey and his team want to develop a 5,500-square-foot winery building and about 17,730 square feet of wine caves, among other additions. The winery would produce a maximum 10,400 cases per year, and tasting would occur by appointment only, with visitors capped at no more than 13 people per day. The winery would not be allowed to host any events.
The Maacama Watershed Alliance, a Knights Valley environmental group, says the project demands a deeper study of its potential effects on groundwater, already a scarce resource in the area.
While the applicant did commission a groundwater analysis - which was subsequently peer reviewed - critics are seeking a full-blown environmental impact report that would entail a much more thorough and expensive review of the project.
That review is required for such a project under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, opponents claim.
“We don’t oppose wineries or winery projects or the winery industry, but you can’t circumvent CEQA and approve these without proper review,” said Craig Enyart, a spokesperson for the watershed alliance.
McDaniel said county officials have so far decided an environmental impact report was not necessary because the project’s potential impacts can be offset to “less than significant” levels.
The county zoning board in September 2015 approved a use permit for the Knights Bridge project on a 4-0 vote, prompting the Maacama Watershed Alliance and a group called the Friends of Spencer Lane to file an appeal.
Supervisors were supposed to consider the appeal last year, but the hearing was delayed so staff could consult with the Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley about cultural resources on the site. County staff also had the project’s groundwater study peer reviewed at the time.
Neighbors remain skeptical about how the winery would affect groundwater levels in the area.
“The view is, it’s an extra demand on water that isn’t necessary,” said John Campbell, a spokesperson for Friends of Spencer Lane. “Locating the winery in Knights Valley imposes a burden of risk on other neighbors. It risks their water supply.”
The Maacama Watershed Alliance has opposed two other Knights Valley winery proposals before, including a 5,000-case plan put forward about a decade ago by billionaire vintner Jess Jackson. The Board of Supervisors in 2009 approved Jackson’s proposal on a 4-1 vote, but the watershed alliance sued and a Sonoma County judge ruled in 2010 that the development would need an environmental impact report to proceed. Jackson shelved the project.
In the second proposal, Gerhard Reisacher wanted to build a 12,000-case winery in the valley and also encountered stiff resistance from the watershed alliance, which called for an environmental impact report. Reisacher put the proposal on hold indefinitely before supervisors made a decision.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, then in her first year on the board, was the lone dissenting vote in 2009 against Jackson’s proposal. Zane, the board chairwoman, said that vote would have no bearing on her decision-making for the latest Knights Valley proposal, which she said she was reviewing in “hundreds of pages” of documents and through meetings with stakeholders on both sides.
Still, she indicated groundwater impacts would be a focus of her attention.
“The water issues are always paramount,” Zane said. “That’s one of the biggest things that we have to look at in any type of winery application.”
If supervisors approve the proposal without requiring an environmental impact report, Enyart indicated critics may again take legal action.
“We’re willing to go to the mat on this one and take it all the way back to Superior Court if we have to,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter ?@thejdmorris.