Sonoma County approves new Dry Creek Valley winery

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Following a decision by Sonoma County zoning officials Thursday, an Illinois couple has the go-ahead to build a new winery, tasting room and wine cave on West Dry Creek Road, northwest of Healdsburg.

The 4-1 vote by the Board of Zoning Adjustments gave Mary Roy and Robert Covert approval to construct a 5,000-case winery and tasting room, as well as a nearly 4,800-square-foot wine cave on the 47-acre property.

The decision came over the objections of several neighbors, who contend there are too many wineries on narrow West Dry Creek Road. With Seaton Winery under construction less than a tenth of a mile to the north and Williamson Winery approved to be built a half-mile to the south, neighbors argued adding another winery would create serious traffic safety problems and take away from the valley’s rural character.

“The cumulative effect of these three wineries and tasting rooms when they all commence operations will have a serious impact on this narrow, half-mile section of West Dry Creek Road,” said Brian Watanabe, who lives near the property owned by Roy and Covert.

The couple purchased the site, which includes 20 acres of vineyards, two years ago. It was previously approved for a 5,000-case winery, tasting room and 3,000-square-foot wine cave.

Roy and Covert secured approval to expand the cave and remove a mobile home on the site and replace it with a 1,800-square-foot building, which will house a 665-square-foot tasting room and a commercial kitchen. They initially wanted to place the tasting room on a knoll but changed their plans after neighbors voiced concerns.

The couple also wanted to build an outdoor pizza oven and grill. Concerned the winery would focus too much on food service, commissioners quashed that idea.

The winery, however, has permission to host industry-related events eight days out of the year. It also can hold eight private events, such as winemaker dinners, charity fundraisers and weddings, with up to 80 attendees each. Weddings will be limited to five a year, and no large buses will be allowed on the site.

Commissioner Greg Carr, who voted against granting the modifications, raised concerns over the number of private events being allowed. “I’d like to see less private events,” he said.

The board’s approval comes amid a heated debate over winery development in Sonoma County. The blowback has included an appeal filed by a group of Dry Creek Valley residents over the zoning board’s recent approval of the nearby 25,000-case Hale Winery, on Dry Creek Road. Residents also appealed the board’s recent decision to grant a permit to expand operations at the Hop Kiln Winery in the Russian River Valley.

Watanabe and other neighbors expressed particular concern over allowing the Roy and Covert winery to host weddings. They argued that weddings had nothing to do with promoting agriculture in the area.

Opponents have 10 days to appeal the board’s decision.

Tina Wallis, the attorney representing the property owners, said Roy and Covert weren’t seeking permission to hold additional events. The same number approved Thursday was included in the original use permit, first approved in 2007, she said.

While the cave and tasting room are larger, she said the owners weren’t increasing the total square footage of buildings on the site but actually decreasing it with the removal of the mobile home.

“You still have a 5,000-case winery. You still have a tasting room, and you still have eight (private) events with 80 attendees,” she said during the meeting.

Still, county planners received numerous emails and letters from neighbors who opposed the changes. One letter signed by 10 residents contended that bicycle traffic had increased on the road, considered one of the most popular cycling routes in the county. The road is too narrow to accommodate all that traffic, residents said, urging the board to deny any changes to the winery permit.

“They have greatly increased the capacity for visitors at the winery, which will increase traffic,” said Erin Rothfuss, a resident of West Dry Creek Road.

Jean Kapolchok, a land-use consultant who represents the winery owners, said the changes were critical for wine production. The proposed cave was expanded to accommodate barrel storage, she explained.

Commissioner Tom Gordon, who represents the district where the winery is located, said he had no problem with the larger cave.

“There’s no better place than a cave because nobody is going to hear a darn thing,” he said during the meeting.

Gordon agreed with residents that traffic can be a problem on the curvy road. However, he said it would be unfair to put all the responsibility for that traffic on Roy and Covert.

Chairwoman Paula Cook agreed. “It’s scary for those neighbors,” she said about the road. But “it’s a bigger problem than just one winery.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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