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Zoning board turns down Guy Fieri’s proposed winery

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Celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s plans to build a winery on a rural road west of Santa Rosa were unanimously rejected Thursday by the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments.

The preliminary 5-0 vote, which needs to be confirmed in a future board meeting, came after two hours of public comment and in front of an audience that at one point featured more than 150 people, most of them opposed to the project.

The strong stance against the proposed 10,000-case winery was led especially by neighbors along the two-lane Willowside Road where Fieri’s project would be located.

They said the commercial operation and calendar of events envisioned by Fieri, a Food Network star and Santa Rosa restaurateur, was out of place in the area. Their objections were focused mostly on possible noise and traffic impacts, and their protests appeared to carry substantial weight with the zoning board, which went against a recommendation by county staff to approve the project.

“It’s hard to get anyone to agree on anything, and I’ve got 206 signatures in front of me against this project, not to mention numerous letters,” said Willie Lamberson, the zoning board member appointed by newly elected Supervisor James Gore, who represents the area.

Thursday’s vote comes at a time when county has experienced pronounced backlash against wineries that double as event centers. Residents from popular winegrape growing regions, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, have voiced concerns about noise, traffic and other problems associated with year-round events at wineries.

Fieri has been trying for more than two years to gain approval for his project, called Hunt-Ryd Winery after his two sons, Hunter and Ryder. His proposal called for wine tasting in a newly constructed tasting room and 14 events per year at the winery, including four events with up to 120 attendees.

Fieri did not attend the hearing Thursday, but the Santa Rosa attorney representing him, Tina Wallis, told the zoning board members during the hearing that their decision carried “ramifications for the entire wine industry and for county projects.”

Planning Director Tennis Wick called the unanimous vote against the proposed new winery rare.

“During my tenure, we haven’t had a unanimous vote denying a use permit for a winery,” said Wick, who replaced former Planning Director Pete Parkinson in late 2013.

Wallis said she would have to talk with Fieri about the next course of action. She said an appeal to the Board of Supervisors was not out of the question.

“We don’t know yet,” Wallis said. “We’ll be carefully contemplating it.”

Before Thursday’s hearing, a crowd of protesters opposed to the project gathered at noon outside the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. They carried signs that read “No to traffic! No to noise! No!” Other signs read “Shhhhhhh! Keep Willowside Safe & Quiet: No to Guy Fieri.”

More than 100 people tied light blue ribbons to their arms to display their opposition to Fieri’s project. About 30 people from the audience spoke during the hearing. All were in opposition.

“This is like putting Disneyland in downtown Graton,” said Dave Hattem, who lives on Willowside Road. “Mr. Fieri is going to be a draw whether he’s there or not. It’s destroying the character of our community and our neighborhood; it’s the wrong place.”

Fieri’s representatives contended that the county’s general plan rules allowed the winery. The area is zoned for rural residential and agricultural uses, they noted.

“This project is fully consistent with the county’s general plan policies,” said Wallis, the Santa Rosa attorney.

But the zoning board members sided with opponents who said it didn’t belong in the rural neighborhood.

“This application is actually agriculture encroaching on residential, rather than the other way around,” Lamberson said. “I grew up in Santa Rosa, and Willowside Road has always been residential. That’s how it’s going to stay.”

Lamberson echoed concerns voiced by the public, including proximity of the project to Olivet Elementary School and the anticipated rise in traffic from winery visitors and delivery trucks, as well as potential safety hazards to pedestrians and cyclists.

“I don’t see this being compatible with the rural nature of the area,” Lamberson said, adding that he’d visited the site multiple times and talked with neighbors about their concerns.

Much of the zoning board’s discussion focused on two issues: whether vehicle counts estimated in the traffic study were realistic and how to measure the noise impacts on nearby residents.

Deputy Planning Director Jennifer Barrett said the county did not have clear guidelines for measuring noise or counting visitors during industrywide events or public tasting room visits. It’s up to zoning board members and county supervisors to interpret those rules, outlined in the county general plan, she said.

“It’s a policy call,” Barrett said.

The proliferation of special events at rural wineries has emerged as a hot-button political issue, sparked by hundreds complaints to the county about unpermitted gatherings and lax enforcement of existing event limits.

The issue was spotlighted last year when the zoning board took unprecedented action against Bella Vineyards over its gatherings, halting all events and wine cave tastings at the popular winery on West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. Bella owners Lynn and Scott Adams are appealing that decision.

A Fieri appeal and the looming Bella case could serve as a test for Gore, who claimed the north county supervisor seat with strong support from business and agriculture groups. Environmental groups supported his rival, Deb Fudge, who generally favored stronger limits on new winery projects.

Neighbors and others who showed up Thursday to oppose Fieri’s project said the county needed to take a closer look at how such projects were affecting rural residents.

“We have the same kind of problem where I live — event centers multiplying on our rural roads,” said Warren Watkins of Healdsburg. “So many of the events I see are totally unrelated to wine.”

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

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