Guy Fieri drops plans for winery outside of Santa Rosa

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Guy Fieri has decided not to fight a decision by Sonoma County planning commissioners to reject his proposed winery on a rural road west of Santa Rosa, an unexpected surrender from a celebrity chef whose network of nine restaurants now stretches across the country.

The decision represents the growing influence of neighbors and others who have spoken out against Fieri’s plans and other proposed or existing wineries that seek to double as event centers in bucolic county settings.

Representatives for grape growers and winemakers have admitted to unease in their ranks that the rejection of Fieri’s project could signal a stiffer regulatory stance at the county level for the area’s signature industry and the tourism business it generates.

“This has elevated our concerns,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, which represents about 250 local grape growers and wineries.

The vote against Fieri’s proposal was exceptionally rare, one of only two winery projects rejected outright by planning commissioners in several decades, according to Sigrid Swedenborg, the veteran county planner who oversaw the Fieri winery proposal. It called for a 10,000-case winery at his 7.25-acre Willowside Road property, including a tasting room and permission to host 14 events a year.

The Santa Rosa-based Food Network star has been seeking approval to build the so-called Hunt-Ryd Winery, named after his two sons Hunter and Ryder, for nearly two years. The project faced strong neighborhood opposition from the outset, resulting in a nine-month lag between the first public hearing last May and the final unanimous vote against it this month by the Board of Zoning Adjustments, which went against a staff recommendation to approve the winery.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether Fieri had plans to revive the project with a new application.

Fieri and his representatives, including his attorney for the project, Tina Wallis, did not return repeated calls and emails for comment Tuesday.

After the Board of Zoning Adjustments cast its preliminary 5-0 vote in late January against the proposal, Fieri had nearly a month to prepare an appeal to the Board of Supervisors. Fieri did not file an appeal by the county’s deadline last week.

Opponents, including many Willowside Road neighbors, pressed county officials for an extensive environmental review of the project, voicing their concerns about the potential for increased traffic and noise in their rural neighborhood.

More than 150 people showed up at last month’s public hearing, most of them opposed to the project. Dozens carried signs denouncing Fieri’s plans or wore arm bands to show their opposition to the winery.

Judy Tembrock, a vocal opponent of Hunt-Ryd Winery, welcomed the news that Fieri has apparently dropped his plans. But she said she and other Willowside Road residents are wary that Fieri might seek approval for another version of the project in the future.

“This is such a small piece of land for all his big ideas,” Tembrock said Tuesday. “It’s too much noise, and it’s too dangerous.”

The zoning board’s denial could have far-reaching implications for winery proposals going forward. It comes as Sonoma County considers drawing up tighter regulations on wineries that increasingly are broadening their business by hosting promotional and private events, from wine industry gatherings to weddings.

At the same time, the county also is reviewing ways to address what some residents and county officials described as an over-concentration of wineries on rural roads.

Planning officials said the vote against Fieri’s winery would not have any impact on future proposals, but wine industry representatives said denial could set a de facto limit on events at future wineries.

“We have decision-makers saying we don’t have a clear definition for what a special event is, and then they turn around and impose limitations,” said Anderson, the United Winegrowers executive director. “We are going to have to find a way to make sure these rules work on the ground, and provide better guidance.”

Wineries in Sonoma County’s prime grape-growing regions came under new scrutiny last year after an unprecedented crackdown on a popular Dry Creek vintner that the county said had been hosting unpermitted events for more than a decade.

Following neighborhood outcry, county planning commissioners halted all events at Bella Vineyards on the narrow West Dry Creek Road. The Board of Supervisors this year is expected to take up Bella’s appeal, and to adopt new rules governing winery events outside city limits.

The action against Bella and the debate over Fieri’s project have been significant factors driving the county’s larger discussion on wineries.

Planning officials charged with approving or denying winery proposals regularly limit the size and number of events permitted. But denying a project altogether is uncommon, planners said.

“It’s extremely rare, but these things are getting more and more contentious,” said Swedenborg, who has worked as a planner since 1981. “The main controversy we’re hearing is about noise, traffic and road issues and neighborhood compatibility.”

Swedenborg recommended approval of a slightly scaled-back version of Fieri’s proposal, with 10 events instead of the 14 that Fieri sought. Commissioners ultimately said the potential impacts on the neighborhood would be too intense for its rural location.

Willowside Road falls within the county’s 4th District, represented by newly elected Supervisor James Gore. Planning Commissioner Willie Lamberson, a Gore appointee, led the decision to deny Fieri’s application, siding with what he said were valid neighborhood concerns.

The zoning board found the project would exceed outdoor noise limits and pose a safety threat for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

“I don’t see this being compatible with the rural nature of the area,” Lamberson said at the Jan. 22 hearing. “I grew up in Santa Rosa, and Willowside Road has always been residential. That’s how it’s going to stay.”

Swedenborg said Fieri must file a new application if he wants to pursue his winery project in the future. It would be subject to the same level of scrutiny, she said.

“We don’t just rubber-stamp these things,” she said. “There’s an involved review process for each application, including measuring the impacts on noise, traffic, neighborhood impact and water.”

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

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