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Westside Road residents want to stop proposed winery near Healdsburg, citing safety concerns

A group of concerned Westside Road residents want Sonoma County planners to halt a new winery proposed for the premier grape-growing corridor southwest of Healdsburg.

Their concerns center largely around traffic safety issues, but they illustrate yet another episode of neighborhood conflict over the spread of the region’s signature industry as county officials prepare to consider policy changes later this year.

The county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments will hold a public hearing Thursday to consider issuing a use permit for a new winery on an approximately 26-acre site at 4603 Westside Road, an area that already contains one of the county’s highest concentration of wineries. As envisioned by its proponents, the new winery would produce 10,000 cases annually and would host 37 special gatherings, including a dozen promotional event days with as many as 150 people. Its events would include no weddings.

County staff members are recommending the zoning board approve the use permit, but the project has received strong resistance from neighbors who primarily cite two sharp turns in the road near the driveway that would lead into the winery. Residents say the turns are too tight and that the project’s proximity to them means it can’t provide sufficiently safe sight lines for motorists. They want the zoning board to reject the project.

Resident Judith Olney, who lives about one and a half miles up Westside Road from the winery site, said the project’s approval would be akin to “playing Russian roulette with public safety.”

“Nothing’s going to ruin a vacation worse than driving in a very stressful situation and having a near miss,” Olney said. “We should hope that there would not be an accident, but we can’t see how there may not be an accident at this intersection given the number of cars that are proposed to go in and out, and the fact that you really just cannot see around these curves until somebody may already be in your lane.”

Olney argued the road conditions created by the winery would detract from residents’ ability to enjoy the area’s rural character and would contribute to an environment in which wineries and tasting rooms are located “just cheek to jowl” in an already-saturated environment. Westside Road has 29 approved wineries, with 21 of them currently active, according to the county.

But John Dobrovich, vice president of real estate for the family of Leslie Rudd, the winery site’s owner, said project proponents have tried to be “very conservative and reasonable” with their expectations since they first applied for a permit three years ago.

“You see a lot of these people, sometimes they come in with very high numbers, with the expectation that they’re going to have to negotiate it down in the process,” Dobrovich said. “We did not take that approach. We wanted to come in very reasonable and not upset the community with something we didn’t think would fit the property and we’d have to back off of later.”

Rudd is a well known businessman who owns the Rudd and Edge Hill wineries in Napa County and Oakville Grocery, which has a location in Healdsburg.

The Westside Road project also is tapping into a broader debate about the proliferation of wineries - and special events in particular - that will likely return to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this fall. Acting on direction from the board last October, county officials have been working on policy recommendations that could include establishing a clearer definition of what constitutes a winery event and other related guidelines.

Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the Westside Road winery site, said he was “extremely sensitive” to neighbors’ concerns and would monitor the zoning board’s decision, which supervisors may review if it is subject to an appeal.

Gore also acknowledged the tricky balance supervisors will need to strike in their broader policy discussion about the proliferation of wineries and events.

“At the same time, we have an amazing industry that’s done extremely well, what we’re facing is not just the benefits of that success, but also the negative impacts,” Gore said. “My goal is to protect agriculture and protect rural character and at the same time to have a thriving economy. I want it all.”

Still, much of the immediate tension regarding the Westside Road project comes down to a debate about traffic safety, with critics claiming county planners erred in allowing the project to use less restrictive visibility requirements for motorists pulling out of the winery site.

Instead of treating the crossing of Westside Road and the road into the winery as a public intersection, which would have required that motorists be able to see farther, county officials considered the winery road a private driveway, which requires a shorter visibility threshold. Olney called the move a “downgrading” of the sight line standard that “betrays the public trust” and could set a “potentially really dangerous precedent.”

But Dean Parsons, project review manager for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, defended the lower threshold as an appropriate standard for the Westside Road project that is consistent with county guidelines.

“In the past, (when) other wineries have used the intersection site distance measurement, they did that on their own,” Parsons said. “They voluntarily did that. It doesn’t mean all of them have to be done that way.”

And Dobrovich sought to dispel any notion that the project was being negligent with safety standards.

“First and foremost, we want the project to be safe,” he said. “Of course, we don’t want anyone to be put in danger (from) trying to drive there. At the same time, we just want to be held to a reasonable standard.”

Dobrovich noted that the project has proposed moving the site’s existing driveway 20 feet south, although Olney was skeptical that could be sufficient.

A representative of the firm that conducted the project’s traffic study will be present at the zoning board hearing on Thursday, according to Dobrovich.

The hearing is set to start at 1:05 p.m. in the county’s permit department hearing room, located at 2550 Ventura Avenue in Santa Rosa.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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