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Winery, creamery plans stir opposition in Bennett Valley

Nate Belden and his wife, Lauren, want to permanently relocate from their San Francisco apartment to their Sonoma County farmhouse, situated on 55 acres off a remote stretch of county road east of Rohnert Park, where they plan to expand their vineyard operations to include a new winery and creamery on site.

But the Beldens’ proposal has been stalled since March, facing opposition from a group of nearby residents concerned about the development’s potential impact on their rural Bennett Valley neighborhood.

The proposal calls for a 10,000-case winery and creamery with capacity to produce 10,000 pounds of cheese a year, as well as a permit allowing for 10 events annually, including a wedding and a harvest party. The project includes reconstruction of current buildings for housing and a tasting room, as well as new buildings for a winery and creamery.

While vineyards line Sonoma Mountain Road, if the Beldens get the green light, the approval would allow for the only winery on the stretch between Pressley Road to the west and Jack London State Historic Park on the east.

The project was approved earlier this year on a 5-0 vote by the county Planning Commission.

But a small group appealing the development, called Belden Barns Winery, has galvanized neighborhood opposition to the winery plans, collecting 135 names in support of their appeal to the Board of Supervisors this week.

Neighbors have submitted dozens of letters to the county citing concerns about increased traffic on what they call a narrow crumbling road, pressure on scarce water resources and other safety concerns.

The Board of Supervisors is slated to take up the appeal in a hearing Tuesday after Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes the property, requested a delay last month upon receiving dozens of letters from constituents opposed to the proposal.

The Beldens have 20 acres of wine grapes on the Sonoma Mountain property, where they’ve lived part time for the past 10 years. Now, they want to live here full time with their two small children. Nate Belden, who until recently worked in finance in San Francisco, said he and his wife have been surprised and frustrated by the headwinds facing the winery project, which they plan to use as their primary source of income.

“Our lives have been on hold since we started this process three years ago,” said Belden, 44. “This is our life and our livelihood - we’re just trying to build a sustainable family business.”

The Beldens’ project is the latest bid to build a new winery at an existing vineyard, following proposals that have routinely drawn heated opposition from rural residents concerned about changes to their bucolic environs.

While the county’s general plan allows for the expansion of agricultural operations, decisions on how winemaking businesses can grow have been made by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors largely on a case-by-case basis. Some projects are swiftly approved without opposition. Others are stalled by lengthy appeals and sometimes quashed in the end.

Gorin said she was still reviewing the Beldens’ proposal while also looking for direction on a countywide policy for such projects moving forward.

“I am looking .?.?. for some policy options that would both support the wine industry and be respectful of neighbors,” Gorin said.

The group appealing the project has cited traffic safety concerns, saying that Sonoma Mountain Road is too narrow and in no condition to support regular traffic to and from a winery.

“This is a curvy and dangerous road,” said Amy Rodney, a lawyer who lives on Sonoma Mountain Road near the Belden property. “So we have lots of safety concerns about the road, but it’s also about the whole character of Sonoma Mountain.”

The approval of expansion plans last year for Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, a 40-year-old Buddhist retreat also located on the road, and a public trailhead for Jacobs Ranch - the newly accessible open space on Sonoma Mountain - are both set to increase traffic in the area, Rodney said.

She and other area residents are also worried that approval of the winery and tasting room could set a precedent for other vineyard owners on Sonoma Mountain who may want to expand and open their own wineries, a trend that she said could threaten groundwater in the area and pose other problems for neighbors.

County planning officials, however, have recommended supervisors strike down the group’s appeal, allowing the Beldens to expand with 103 conditions of approval - including environmental safeguards and measures to mitigate traffic impacts on Sonoma Mountain Road.

The Beldens would be required to produce a study of the water system to ensure that there are adequate drinking supplies; restrict the type and volume of noise outdoors and limit the number of attendees at events.

Belden said he has listened to his neighbors, and offered concessions, including cutting back the number of events each year from 10 to four. Belden also commissioned an outside traffic study and an analysis of the underground water resources.

“We reached out after the appeal and met with neighbors three times to say, ‘What are your real issues?’ but all we’ve heard is, ‘No, no, no,’” Belden said.

The opponents said the Beldens’ traffic study was shoddy, noting that only part of Sonoma Mountain Road was taken into account.

A county land use plan for the Bennett Valley area prohibits new commercial development, including wineries, critics contend.

“The proposed size and usage and the attendant impacts are detrimental to the rural expectations of area residents,” wrote Tamara Boultbee in a letter to the Planning Commission. “A lot of traffic, especially truck traffic, is a bane to the way of life in this area.”

Granting the permit would “create a precedent for all other vineyards in the area that might have similar ambitions,” wrote Michael and Helen Bates, who live on Sonoma Mountain Road. “Such development would invite even more traffic and potential problems with regard to water resources.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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