Sonoma Valley luxury resort and winery moves forward despite opposition

After languishing for more than a decade, a luxury hotel resort and winery in Kenwood is again moving forward, bolstered by new owners and prior approval from the county that appears to pave the way for construction.

The 50-room hotel on a plateau overlooking the Valley of the Moon - along with a luxury spa, 125-seat restaurant and small winery - was the subject of a bruising land-use fight a dozen years ago before being stalled further by the recession.

To opponents, the Resort at Sonoma Country Inn, as it’s now dubbed, epitomizes the steady onslaught of new wineries, tasting rooms and events that are changing the face of the picturesque valley, piling more cars on to busy Highway 12, which averages more than 18,000 vehicles per day in Kenwood, according to state traffic counts.

“It is something that is going to have an impact for sure,” said Kathy Pons, president of Valley of the Moon Alliance, a community group. She worries not only about traffic, but the hillside resort’s visibility and light emanating from it at night.

Pons understands why the developers tout the resort near the base of craggy, red-hued Hood Mountain as “magical.”

“We want to make sure the magical place doesn’t hinder all the rest of us with our magical places,” she said. “If they can see us, we can see them.”

The 186-acre site off Highway 12 near Lawndale Road was purchased in late 2014 for $41 million by Tohigh Property Investment, a subsidiary of Chinese developer Oceanwide Holdings.

So far, the only obvious changes to the site are an added left-hand turn lane on the highway and the widening of La Campagna Lane at the entrance, which is marked by a meadow studded with giant oaks.

Last month, the company obtained design approval for the project, typically one of the final steps before building permits are issued.

But the Valley of the Moon Alliance has appealed the decision, arguing that a number of recent changes to the project require more environmental study, including relocation of some of the hotel’s hillside, cottage-like rooms; the addition of an outside swimming pool; and plans for two new parking lots totaling 94 spaces.

The Planning Commission will hear the challenge to the Design Review Board’s approval, likely followed with another hearing by the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district encompasses Sonoma Valley, said county officials previously determined the project is “vested and entitled to move forward” after the environmental report was approved by supervisors in 2004 and opponents lost a subsequent legal challenge.

“The issue for the county, and perhaps the courts, to decide is are conditions different enough from the environmental impact report that it needs additional scrutiny,” she said.

Rob Muelrath, a Santa Rosa-based consultant who represents the developers, asserted that “we have our entitlements,” and they aim to begin construction in late 2017, confident that the appeal by opponents will have little effect.

Even Pons acknowledged “if something is built, and it probably will be, we want it as least impactful to the community as we can make it.”

“A little more review wouldn’t hurt before they get the shovels in there and get going,” she said.

Muelrath said the developers “want to do the right thing by the community.” To that end, they have been reaching out to Kenwood organizations and introducing themselves as “the new neighbor.”

“They want to be part of (the community) and learn more about it,” he said of his clients.

Some Kenwood residents seem resigned to the increasing traffic on Highway 12, whether the cause is tourists, commuters or more residential development on the edges of Santa Rosa and Sonoma.

Gorin said the traffic is not just from winery events and employees.

The highway is “a major arterial road through Sonoma Valley,” she said, providing access to and from Napa and Solano counties, as well as Sacramento.

“I’ve lived here quite a while. I’ve noticed traffic on the road has gotten quite crazy,” said Steve Turmes, a retired nurse who has been in Kenwood since the mid-1990s. “It’s part of progress, I guess.”

Weekend visitors flocking to the area for wine tasting and other events can produce long lines of cars and sometimes dangerous parking along the highway.

This past summer, word of a one-time open house at a lavender farm in Kenwood spread through social media and drew several thousand people. There were reports of traffic backing up for a mile and motorists waiting a half-hour to get through the jam.

“It’s already out of control on weekends,” said John Podboy, a psychologist who has lived in Kenwood for four decades. “It used to be a peaceful country road.”

Angelo Parisi, a Kenwood postal employee, said there is a vocal part of the community opposed to the Kenwood resort, although it hasn’t been much of a topic of discussion lately.

In general, he said “people like what’s left of the quiet, rural nature of the area,” adding that the high-end hotel - with room rates initially estimated at $700 per night - isn’t something many people can afford, but it’s bound to bring more traffic.

In addition to a dozen estate homes, the project also includes a 10,000-case winery and approval for 20 events there annually.

When it comes to wineries, Parisi said, “I don’t know if there’s any way to stop them.”

Some Kenwood business owners have expressed support for the resort and say their popular Wine Country spot needs more lodging.

“There is kind of a consensus among a lot of folks there’s not enough places for people to stay in Kenwood and in one way it impedes some business,” said Bill Foss, owner of Kenwood Restaurant.

He anticipates the resort will be attractive and lend “world-class status” to Kenwood, an unincorporated community of slightly more than 1,000 people with a small smattering of restaurants, stores, tasting rooms and about eight wineries with Kenwood addresses strung along the Highway 12 corridor.

But even more wineries are in the pipeline, including three across from Oakmont that have been approved but not yet built, according to Gorin.

Closer to Kenwood, Ledson Winery is also in the process of applying for a new 50,000-case winery and tasting room. Kenwood Vineyards wants to build a new tasting room to serve more visitors. And a little farther south, Beltane Ranch is applying for a winery and tasting room.

Foss understands the resistance to new development, adding “it’s one of those conundrums. We don’t want people coming into our neighborhoods. At the same time we want the jobs and money they bring.”

Muelrath noted that the new resort, located on the former Graywood Ranch, is zoned “visitor serving.”

“It’s been slated for a hotel resort for quite some time,” he said.

The property’s previous owner was Bob Piccinini, chairman and CEO of Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets. He partnered at one point with Auberge Resorts - which specializes in five-star hotels worldwide - to build and operate the hotel.

Muelrath said a new hotel operator has not yet been selected.

The resort, which is projected to employ 119 people, will generate more than $1 million annually in hotel room tax revenue for the county, according to proponents. Muelrath said that figure doesn’t include other spending by resort guests and restaurant patrons.

The county Design Review Board last month voted 2-1 to approve the project.

Plans call for muted building colors - dark grays, light to dark browns and creams - to blend in with the trees and ground.

The night lighting of the resort will be “highly shielded so you don’t get glare,” said Eric Johnson, a consultant to the developer. Windows will have material that blocks light emanating from rooms. Light sources won’t be seen from Highway 12, he said.

“It’s not typical commercial lighting, “ Johnson said. “It’s very low key.”

But consultants acknowledged some light will be seen from Adobe Canyon Road and “afar.”

Critics weren’t appeased.

“Before it was a retreat concept. Now we have that and a very large parking lot that can a host a very large event,” said Valley of the Moon Association member Roger Peters, referencing weddings and parties.

Design Review Board member Jim Henderson said it’s a beautiful hillside site, but the architects have done “a really good job of minimizing impacts and preserving the tree canopy.”

Resort project managers said 620 trees will be removed, consisting largely of Douglas fir, coast live oak and madrone. The number of trees to be cut is 17 percent less than the maximum slated for removal under original plans, and replacements will be planted.

Henderson said the resort will be hard to see from below during the day although “at night it may be different.”

“I really think it’s a well-done project and I support it,” he said.

Design Review Board member Misti Harris said she was pleased with the latest version of the project.

“I’m generally very happy with it,” she said.

But Peter Wurtz, the dissenting member of the design board, said he wasn’t convinced the changes, including relocating some of the hotel units 50 to 60 feet downhill, was adequately covered in environmental studies.

“I just can’t accept a site plan that’s vastly different,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @clarkmas.

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