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.
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.”