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Willie Lamberson

Age: 69

Occupation: Ceramic tile contractor, former grape grower

Appointment: Sonoma County planning commissioner, representing 4th District

Quote: “I’m working hard to do the very best I can...There’s a lot at stake, and I do worry about ‘Are my kids ever going to be able to buy a house here? What’s the county going to look like when my grandkids grow up?’ We need to think hard about the consequences of our actions.”

Before Willie Lamberson became a Sonoma County planning commissioner this year, the ceramic tile contractor cut a low-key public profile, with little attachment to the workings of local government beyond a penchant for political involvement handed down years ago from his father, also a tile contractor and Army veteran.

In just four months, however, Lamberson, 69, has inserted himself into the center of an escalating debate about winery development in the county, attracting scrutiny due to his strong stands for and against a number of high-profile projects, as well as for blunt public comments he made about neighbors who complain about the wine industry.

Lamberson, a former grape grower who had never before held a public post, was appointed to his seat by newly elected county Supervisor James Gore to represent the north county. In his first meeting on the Board of Zoning Adjustments in January, he took a firm stand against celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s plans for a new Santa Rosa-area winery, steering the panel to a unanimous rejection of the contentious proposal. The decision sent shock waves across Wine Country, surprising especially those who have sought greater curbs on winery projects.

“He was brand-new, and willing to say ‘No,’ so that decision rocked so many people back on their heels,” said Rue Furch, a former longtime planning commissioner who has spoken out against the proliferation of wineries in rural areas. “Willie made statements unlike anything we’ve heard for a long, long time. We started saying, ‘What will he do next?’ ”

Neighborhood advocates on one side of the winery debate and farming and wine industry representatives on the other — plus current and former county officials — share the assessment that Lamberson has emerged as an unpredictable and sometimes brazen figure on the county’s most influential planning body.

“Some people are saying they don’t know which way he’s going to go,” said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County. “He’s fresh — he’s getting through the spring training.”

One public comment, in particular, has sharpened the focus on Lamberson. Last month, before he cast his decision approving a 25,000-case winery in Dry Creek Valley, he rebuffed neighbors complaining about wineries operating without punishment outside of county rules, hosting events that draw unruly crowds.

“We can’t control the behavior surrounding the wine industry,” Lamberson said to a room of several dozen people, as he looked up from a notepad on which he was diligently scribbling notes. “Instead of bitching and moaning to your neighbors, you can call code enforcement.”

Some neighborhood advocates and activists opposed to winery expansion were highly offended by the comment. Farming and wine industry representatives — including some of Gore’s biggest supporters — said the remark raised questions about Lamberson’s competence as a commissioner. Unless appealed to the Board of Supervisors, decisions made by the separate five-seat zoning board and the Planning Commission are final.

Lamberson defended his comments, while acknowledging that he could have softened his message.

“I’ve had some criticism for being a little bit harsh with people, but it’s pretty much who I am,” Lamberson said in an interview. “But folks should know I’m working on my warm, fuzzy side.”

The spotlight has been turned on Lamberson just as the long-simmering debate about winery development in the county has heated up. The issue has pitted some rural residents and activists concerned about increased traffic, noise and strain on water supplies and other resources against influential groups representing the county’s signature industry and winery proprietors hoping to build or expand their operations.

Willie Lamberson

Age: 69

Occupation: Ceramic tile contractor, former grape grower

Appointment: Sonoma County planning commissioner, representing 4th District

Quote: “I’m working hard to do the very best I can...There’s a lot at stake, and I do worry about ‘Are my kids ever going to be able to buy a house here? What’s the county going to look like when my grandkids grow up?’ We need to think hard about the consequences of our actions.”

The key issue in the standoff is the proliferation of existing and new wineries that double as event centers, hosting gatherings such as weddings, winemaker dinners and barrel tastings that Lamberson, in last month’s meeting, said often lead to a “party atmosphere.”

Lamberson’s role in the debate is already outsized, and it looks to grow even more so. Of the 62 pending applications to expand an existing winery or build a new winery, all with a slate of proposed events, just over half are in Gore’s 4th District, including the world-class grape-growing regions of Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River valleys.

Gore, who took office in January, has signaled his support for county action to regulate winery events, including stricter code enforcement, but he generally favors allowing new wineries and expanded operations to move ahead.

“It’s a free country,” Gore said.

Gore, as a first-time candidate for public office, met Lamberson early last year after he kicked off his campaign for supervisor. Both men served in the Peace Corps — Gore in Bolivia and Lamberson in the west African country of Togo.

Both are Democrats who grew up in Sonoma County. Gore’s family raised wine grapes outside of Healdsburg, and Lamberson, who picked prunes as a child, grew grapes in Dry Creek Valley for 10 years. Both speak with affinity about farming being part of who they are, just as they acknowledge the radical change the wine industry and tourist economy has brought to places such as Healdsburg, once a dusty farm town.

Gore said such transitions, past and future, are a driving concern for him and his two planning commissioners, including Lamberson, who lives in Wikiup, and Healdsburg resident Tom Gordon. They receive a stipend of $75 per meeting for their service.

“We’re all talking about what this place is going to look like in 50 years, and so much is changing,” Gore said. “I know what people talk about when they talk about rural character. Just look at Healdsburg 25 years ago — it was work trucks around the plaza instead of Teslas and Mercedes and BMWs.”

Lamberson’s views and comments on winery limits appear to have evolved even over his brief county tenure to more closely mirror Gore’s.

That much became clear recently, when, after the strong rejection of Fieri’s proposal, he supported limiting events at Hop Kiln Winery off Westside Road.

Two weeks later, he went against a staff recommendation on tighter limits and voted with a zoning board majority to authorize Ken and Diane Wilson to hold a greater number of events at their new Hale Winery on Dry Creek Road. Lamberson defended his votes, saying he looks at each case independently. His views on limiting events, however, have flipped, he acknowledged.

“I realized that the wine industry needs to govern itself, and we can’t limit bad behavior by restricting events,” Lamberson said. “That’s not the proper approach.”

Lamberson got into the construction trade as a teenager. At age 20, he was drafted in the Army to serve in Germany during the Vietnam War, pulling him away from his studies at Santa Rosa Junior College. He returned to school a few years later, graduating with a degree in sociology from Sonoma State University.

He then served two years in the Peace Corps, building schools in Togo, before returning to Sonoma County to start a family. He is married to a retired hairdresser, and they have four children between them.

He became interested in politics at the age of 9, when he witnessed what he described as “democracy in action.” At the time, his father and a group of neighbors had circulated a petition and successfully stopped part of the county from being annexed into Santa Rosa.

“It showed me the power of public participation from a young age,” Lamberson said.

After his Army stint ended, Lamberson volunteered for the 1968 presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, who sought to bring a swift end to the Vietnam War. Lamberson went on to march with other veterans against the war, and continued to volunteer or donate money to a variety of other political campaigns over the years, including for local elected officials. He’s made campaign donations to Healdsburg Vice Mayor Tom Chambers, a good friend, and worked on the supervisorial campaign of Fred Euphrat, who ran against longtime 4th District Supervisor Paul Kelley in 2002.

Lamberson was looking for a campaign to get involved with in 2013 before he met Gore.

“So I asked my wife, and she said ‘Go for it,’ ” Lamberson said. “Then I met James, and we just clicked.” He began to walk with the candidate every weekend and soon took over Gore’s advertising efforts, blanketing the north county with Gore’s blue and orange signs.

“All those signs you saw along the freeway — that was me,” Lamberson said.

When Gore prevailed over Windsor Councilwoman Deb Fudge, Lamberson joked that he needed something else to keep him busy. Gore said he appointed him because of his experience as a contractor with the permitting process, and because of their shared values.

Gore said he does not give direction to Lamberson, or tell him how to vote.

“I appointed both Willie and Tom Gordon because they are independent, free-thinking people with good values, and they aren’t in the pockets of labor unions, or builders, or the wine industry, or the environmental community,” Gore said. “When I chose them, all those groups collectively said, ‘Who?’ ”

Lamberson is a member of the Sierra Club and past member of the North Coast Builders Exchange. He’s coached Little League baseball and youth basketball.

But today, the high profile of his new public role is often discomforting.

“This is as exposed as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I am confident I can do this work, and I see it as very important, especially with the growing pains that we’re in right now. But it’s kind of stressful when you’ve always been in the background, and all of a sudden you’re in the foreground.”

Lamberson shared his views about his planning commissioner post Wednesday from a coffee shop near his home. He enjoys diving into the technical studies that feed into planning decisions and is getting more comfortable with public criticism.

“I’m working hard to do the very best I can, and when it comes to these applications, what’s important to me is fairness and balance,” he said. “There’s a lot at stake, and I do worry about ‘Are my kids ever going to be able to buy a house here? What’s the county going to look like when my grandkids grow up?’ We need to think hard about the consequences of our actions.”

People keeping a close eye on winery development and Lamberson have been mystified by his differing stands on projects and events.

“I’m puzzled by the contrast,” said Fred Corson, chairman of the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council, which has opposed several recent winery proposals, including the Wilsons’ project — their ninth winery in the county. “His comments were quite different than before.”

The “bitching and moaning” comment has added to the political tumult, with a high-stakes battle ahead as wine producers, rural residents and others jockey for influence on new rules that would govern wineries.

Greg Carr, a veteran planning commissioner, said he was taken aback by Lamberson’s comment.

“I wouldn’t have said it,” said Carr, Supervisor Susan Gorin’s appointee to represent the 1st District. “But I think there may have been frustration behind it.”

The remark did not sit well with Dry Creek Valley residents who say their region has been overwhelmed by winery development. Amid county inaction, popular winery events — many of them unauthorized — compound the problem, they say.

“I was irate when I read it,” said Cynthia Adam. “It seems like he took one stance, and then all of the sudden he changed his stance.”

Corson, chairman of the Dry Creek citizen’s council, was in the audience at the hearing. “I think it was disingenuous on his part, because the Board of Zoning Adjustments does have some responsibility for the way events are managed,” he said.

Lamberson, in the interview Wednesday, said his wording was a stern reaction to four months of complaints from neighbors worried about increased noise and traffic that they say come with an expanding wine industry.

“I realized I was getting caught up in this hoopla about the distaste for bad actors in the wine industry, and people were on a witch hunt, but no one was really doing anything about it,” Lamberson said. “No one was stepping forward to say ‘Enough is enough,’ so that’s a little what motivated that outburst.”

Lamberson said criticism of his comments was conveyed to him, including from Gore, who spoke to him the following morning.

“I didn’t really mind when he said ‘bitching and moaning,’ ” Gore said. “But I didn’t like it when he said he didn’t support (allowing) weddings” at wineries. (The two men hold opposite views on the subject, with Gore supporting looser rules that would allow wineries to hold weddings. Lamberson said that such winery events don’t promote agriculture and thus shouldn’t be allowed.)

Activists taking aim at the county over approval of new and expanded wineries say they now hold some reservations about Lamberson’s neutrality in the debate.

“He is supposed to be listening to people on all sides,” said Shepherd Bliss, a vocal county critic who has highlighted the environmental toll of wine industry growth. He recently helped create the new group Preserve Rural Sonoma County in response to the highly disputed Dairyman winery proposal east of Sebastopol.

“The public is outraged,” Bliss said.

One of Gore’s chief supporters has voiced misgivings about Lamberson’s selection as planning commissioner, while not singling out his recent remarks.

“While Sonoma County Farm Bureau doesn’t necessarily disagree with the decisions Willie Lamberson has made so far, his tone and outspokenness at times have been unusual,” said Tim Tesconi, the group’s executive director.

“The Farm Bureau has communicated with James Gore that it would have preferred someone with more background in land use and agriculture to serve on the Planning Commission and BZA,” he said.

Gore, nevertheless, expressed strong support for Lamberson. “I have absolute confidence in him,” he said. “I know he’s been perceived as pro-ag, and pro-citizen, but the reality is, he’s both.”

Lamberson said he’ll continue to listen carefully to both sides in the debate.

“I was a grape grower, so I can see that side, and I’ve also lived through all the changes in Healdsburg, so I can see that side,” he said. “And you know what? I can take the heat.”

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

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