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Amazon delivery hub a ‘freight terminal,’ say zoning officials

A proposed Amazon delivery hub outside Sonoma is a freight terminal and not a storage facility, an influential county panel ruled this month, a critical distinction that could subject the sprawling warehouse to a lengthy environmental review process.

The county Board of Zoning Adjustments upheld an appeal challenging the use permit granted for the Schellville building in January 2020 by Permit Sonoma, an agency that oversees development and land use planning in unincorporated areas of the county.

At the very least, the board’s decision will delay final county approval for the 250,000-square foot warehouse to operate as a “last-mile” delivery hub for the online retail giant. It may place the building’s proposed usage on a course for review under the California Environmental Quality Act, a potentially lengthy and demanding process.

The Victory Station warehouse and shipping facility, built by Bay Area developer Jose McNeill, has been vacant since its construction in 2018. It was proposed, planned and permitted as a winery storage and distribution location at the time.

Last May, Amazon filed a building permit to make interior tenant improvements at the Eighth Street East building and McNeill Real Estate Services sought a permit to develop an adjacent 3.5-acre lot for delivery van usage.

Amazon’s interest in converting the facility into a regional hub is consistent with its last-mile delivery model. Packages are sent to these hubs from larger regional facilities, then sorted and delivered to local consumers in 20-foot-long delivery vans, as described in the Permit Sonoma project description.

Amazon has similar although larger shipping hubs in Vacaville — one opened in 2014 and another is currently under construction. Yet another is being built in Napa County, where the company’s 58-acre portion of a development at Napa Logistics Park in American Canyon includes parking for 1,170 delivery vans and 409 employee vehicles.

The company told the North Bay Business Journal in November it has over 175 fulfillment centers across the globe and more than 110 in North America.

To streamline the opening of the Schellville facility, Amazon sought to apply the use permit for the warehouse at Victory Station and add a new parking lot on a 3.5-acre lot it leased next door. Project managers began remodeling the warehouse last year, prior to approval of the permit, activity that was halted by county officials in July with a stop-work order.

Norman Gilroy and Kathy Pons, who represent neighborhood watchdog groups Mobilize Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon Alliance, respectively, have objected to the proposed use by Amazon, arguing that it exceeds the “scale of uses on which the (project's) original permit approvals were predicated.”

In July, the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission agreed with Gilroy and Pons that the expanded use of the property, including the new 250-space parking lot, should be regarded as “a single conjoined proposal and not as separate ‘piecemealed’ components.”

A supervising planner with Permit Sonoma, Blake Hillegas, sent developer McNeill a July 29 letter that said, in part, “the County is required to evaluate the whole of the project under CEQA guidelines. … A single application for the whole of the project, including Amazon as the tenant is required.”

The following month, Permit Sonoma determined that Amazon’s plans for the building was consistent with permitted uses and did not require a use permit. In September, Gilroy and Pons formally appealed the August zoning determination, which placed the issue before the Board of Zoning Adjustments.

In the staff report for the Feb. 11 meeting, the combined project was described by Permit Sonoma as a “permitted heavy commercial use for which storage and commercial transportation facilities are necessary and usual to the operation.”

But Gilroy said that new county definitions of “truck/bus/freight terminals” are a more accurate description of Amazon’s proposed operation than its initial designation as a storage facility.

“The definition of a freight terminal in the new code clearly fits what we know of the Amazon proposal, which is neither a wine warehouse nor a storage facility for large and heavy merchandise,” Gilroy said in an email statement. “But rather (it) is a transfer terminal.”

And, argued Gilroy, since trucking and truck storage would be the primary function of the facility, the “truck terminal” category would be a better for what Amazon proposed.

The new definition of a “truck/bus/freight terminal” in the county zoning code was approved by the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 2 and takes effect in March.

Valley of the Moon Alliance member Roger Peters suggested it was clearly appropriate to the proposed Amazon facility, as the new code characterization includes “freight, forwarding services, freight terminal facilities, joint terminal and service facilities, packing, crating, inspection and weighing services, postal service bulk mailing distribution centers, transportation arrangement services, trucking facilities including transfer and storage, repair services for trucks using the facility.”

That definition was recognized by the Board of Zoning Adjustments as appropriate to the proposed Amazon facility. On a 3-2 vote, the board sided with Gilroy and Pons and ruled that a conditional use permit is needed for the project to move forward, which could be subject to CEQA review.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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