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Early this month, Sonoma County planning commissioners unanimously approved a new winery location for Geyserville-based Silver Oak Cellars, including as many as 26 events for the 120,000-case winery in Alexander Valley.

The project, scaled back from initial plans calling for 55 annual events, is among a rush of applications for both new wineries and expanded operations that can double as event centers.

Of the 21 applications submitted countywide in the past two years — a 75 percent jump over the previous two-year period — 14 have been approved, and all but one have been in the north county’s 4th supervisorial district, where a pivotal election Nov. 4 will determine the majority on the Board of Supervisors and the level of regulation of the county’s signature industry.

Both candidates in the race for the 4th District seat have been careful to assure rural neighbors they are listening to concerns about the proliferation of events and increased traffic. They have offered policy ideas, but neither has been specific about regulations they would impose on events for a wine industry that draws in more than half of the county’s annual 7.5 million tourists, according to industry reports, and has become county’s identity to much of the outside world.

Mounting opposition to winery projects — and the discovery that some wineries are hosting dozens of unauthorized events year-round — has led county planning officials to draw up tighter limits, and to take a rare punitive step recently.

The Board of Zoning Adjustments endorsed action to halt all events and popular wine cave tastings at Bella Vineyards on West Dry Creek Road outside Healdsburg. The move, which came Oct. 16, a week after Silver Oak sailed through, was the result of what planning officials described as a procession of permit infringements dating back more than a decade.

Bella is one of a trio of winemaking and tasting locations in the 4th District that have ignited debate about winery events in the race for north county supervisor between Deb Fudge and James Gore. The two candidates have been facing questions about the issue on the campaign trail.

“I would say Silver Oak and Bella are a study in contrasts,” said Fudge, a veteran Windsor Town councilwoman. “Silver Oak worked with neighbors, and in the end neighbors supported them, whereas Bella has been flaunting their events for years and ignoring county rules.”

Bella officials contend that they have been complying with their permit and called the county’s allegations “misleading and inaccurate,” saying officials “omitted many critical facts.”

“We have made every effort to comply with our use permit and have worked with the county throughout the years to ensure that we have been hosting the allowed events,” Bella co-owner Lynn Scott said in a written statement.

Both candidates, however, said they agreed with the zoning board’s unanimous decision to scale back Bella’s permit. A final vote by the zoning board is set for Nov. 20.

“Bella has been out of compliance for so many years, that I think the county made the right decision,” Fudge said. “It was extreme, but in my opinion Bella needs to get with the program.”

Charlee Schanzer, who lives about a mile from Bella, said nearly every weekend she witnesses limousines carrying groups of people past her house. She says she has to pull to the side of the road to let other cars pass.

“Events and wineries are good for our economy, and I am not against them as long as the road is safe,” Schanzer said. “On West Dry Creek, it’s just not. There are steep drop-offs. It’s too narrow. It has the potential for disaster.”

Gore, a former Obama administration official, said the action against Bella highlighted the ambiguous county rules that wineries are operating under.

“Bella underscores the need for clarity — both for businesses and for neighbors,” Gore said. “But from everything I’ve read, it looks like county staff made the right call.”

Another winery proposal facing neighborhood opposition, at Michel-Schlumberger, was rejected in July by the Dry Creek Citizens Advisory Council — a planning body convened by Supervisor Mike McGuire. Council members cited concerns about the narrow road leading to the Healdsburg-area winery.

While Gore said he hadn’t studied details about the application to hold 52 events a year, he said if the winery is currently holding unpermitted events — its advertising indicates that is likely — the county should take action.

“We have rules for a reason,” Gore said. “I would never support a business that runs contrary to the needs of a community.”

Fudge said she has looked at the proposal from Michel- Schlumberger and said she has concerns about increased traffic on narrow country roads.

“Schlumberger was supposed to widen the road years ago when it asked for events,” Fudge said. “That was never done. It’s still not wide enough for the events they’re proposing.”

Celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s proposed Hunt-Ryd Winery on Willowside Road west of Santa Rosa has drawn similar scrutiny. Fieri’s proposal calls for 14 events a year, but both Gore and Fudge said they are concerned with a new winery so close to a school. Olivet Elementary School is nearby.

“I went out to Willowside Road to see the road for myself, because I heard neighbors were concerned,” Fudge said. “It looks like it’s in completely the wrong place.”

Gore said he hasn’t decided how he feels about the proposal, which stalled earlier this year in a hearing before planning commissioners.

“The school is like 500 feet away,” Gore said. “I’m concerned about that, and I’m listening to the community’s concerns. But I haven’t looked at whether I’d vote up or down on it. I’m not a supervisor yet.”

Joan Fleck, who lives next door to where Fieri wants to put a winery and hold events, said such plans “have taken on a life of their own” in the county. She questioned the ability of county planning staff to provide adequate review and enforcement.

Fudge and Gore, while stressing the need for more clearly defined rules, also said supervisors should dedicate resources to ramping up enforcement. Currently, such efforts are limited, county officials

“We are complaint-based,” said Ben Neuman, a code enforcement officer who worked on the recent Bella hearing. “We really have no proactive use-permit monitoring program in Sonoma County.”

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

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